National Alliance on Mental Illness
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A Bridge across Religious Borders

Dick Bunce, left, with Dr. Taif Kaissi, a member of the
Collaborative's steering committee.

By Stephanie Corkett, NAMI communications intern

Dick Bunce, although now retired as the executive director of NAMI Pomona Valley (Calif.), hasn’t stopped working with his NAMI Affiliate to serve his community.

Recognizing that the needs of the faith communities in the area were not being met, Bunce worked with NAMI Pomona Valley to develop a plan to provide the resources they needed.

“We realized we weren’t getting the word out effectively. People would come up to me and say, ‘I wish I’d known of [NAMI] sooner,’” said Bunce. With this knowledge, the Interfaith Collaborative on Mental Health (ICMH) was created for more extensive outreach into faith-based communities.

Developed as a cooperative between NAMI FaithNet, the local mental health center and representatives of a broad cross-section of the Pomona Valley faith community, ICMH’s objective is to help congregations begin to speak more openly about mental illness by making them aware of resources in the community, including NAMI.

Bunce contacted community members through rotary clubs, coordinating councils, as well as the local schools for parents and teachers. Representing the three predominant religions in the area Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as others--the coalition offers seminars and classes that provide information on mental illness, including how to identify mental illness early, ways to reduce stigma and personal stories from individuals living with mental illness.

The ICMH has held two town meetings, with Dr. Gloria Morrow, a clinical psychologist, as the keynote speaker. These meetings included a diverse panel discussion and a question and answer portion. The meetings, titled, “Widening the Welcome, Deepening the Support” welcomed faith leaders, mental health professionals, individuals living with mental illness and their families.

NAMI Pomona Valley recently received a grant for gearing the collaborative more precisely to the more underserved communities. Town meetings are soon to be held, and clergy and lay leaders are invited to come and express their questions and concerns about mental illness in their faith groups and neighborhoods.

Accessing these underserved congregations has proved a challenge for Bunce and the coalition. “Some people were distrustful of our presence; for one thing, many pastors of smaller, storefront churches have full-time, secular jobs, so can be hard to reach,” Bunce remarked. Bunce also found that African American, Vietnamese, Latino and Japanese communities all had different attitudes toward mental illness, and some had doubts about western medication.

“We wanted to appear nonthreatening to these congregations. We didn’t want them to think we we’re trying to make them do everything our way. We became creative in our dialogue and wanted to hear their thoughts.” Bunce said. This thinking helped create a comfortable environment where all ideas and beliefs were accepted and valued.

Bunce’s long-term hope for the collaborative is that NAMI subsist only in the background there, but only in support. Ultimately each community would have the material they needed to make a difference in their congregation on their own. “I’d love to see fifty congregations in our area that have their own mental health teams. NAMI would always be there in support, but they would be in the driver’s seat,” said Bunce.

When asked how his work was progressing, Bunce replied with an analogy: “We have some hot coals burning alongside some unlit coals. The goal is to see them all burning, but we don’t want to drop more lighter fluid. We’d rather step back and let them light each other.”

Because of the diverse nature of the religious community, Bunce acknowledges that progress is slow, but the enthusiasm in the congregations is there. Bunce believes that despite all their differences there is a great sense of deep spirituality that connects them. If they pull that off, Bunce says, “Then we’ll all come together.”