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January 10, 2007

Faith Group Seeks Feedback on Mental Illness Study Guide

By Evan Silverstein, Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) is accepting feedback on a new study guide examining serious mental illness.

The 24-page study document - Serious Mental Illness: Seeking a Comprehensive Christian Response - is aimed at getting the entire PC(USA) engaged in a comprehensive study of serious mental illness.

The study guide - available in English and Spanish - was completed last summer by the Task Force on Serious Mental Illness, which was appointed two years ago by ACSWP, which develops social policies for consideration by the PC(USA)'s General Assembly. 

The 11-member task force is developing a proposed policy for church ministry to people living with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. 

"We are aware that many individuals and congregations face mental illness issues without having ways to talk about them in a Christian context," said the Rev. Belinda M. Curry, ACSWP's associate for policy development and interpretation. "This feedback will help ACSWP as it develops policy principles and recommendations to strengthen the PC(USA)'s efforts to minister more effectively and compassionately to persons living with mental illness and their loved ones in the 21st century." 

Complimentary copies of the study document were mailed last August to the PC(USA)'s 16 synods and 173 presbyteries with enough copies for each local congregation. Copies were also sent to Presbyterian-related seminary and college libraries.

Presbytery and synod groups and individuals are encouraged to use the resource to guide their own studies on serious mental illness. 

ACSWP will take into consideration comments and reflections on the document through this December, though earlier responses would be appreciated, as it finalizes its work on a policy proposal for the PC(USA)'s 218th General Assembly in 2008.

The 211th General Assembly (1999) directed ACSWP, in consultation with appropriate entities, to develop a comprehensive serious mental illness policy. The mental illness task force, whose members were appointed in January 2005, includes a psychiatrist, therapists, pastors, elders, psychologists and professors.

Feedback on the study should be sent to Belinda Curry, Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, 100 Witherspoon Street, Room 3611, Louisville, KY 40202-1396; 502-569-8041 (fax). Curry can also be reached at 1-800-728-7228, ext. 5813 for additional information about the study guide.

Hoping to reach the PC(USA)'s growing Hispanic constituency, the Spanish version of the study guide was translated in consultation with the PC(USA)'s Hispanic Congregational Enhancement office. This resource and the English document can be downloaded free of charge. 

A paperback version, in English only, can be ordered at the site for $4 each or by calling the Presbyterian Distribution Center toll-free at 800-524-2612. Specify PDS #68-600-06-001 when ordering.

The feedback study guide provides four sessions for group discussion and reflection. Theological, ethical, therapeutic and social service dynamics are presented for response, as are proposed recommendations for hands-on forms of ministry and service as well as public policy improvements. 

The document says people with serious mental illnesses are often oppressed in American society - denied jobs, housing and access to quality treatment, while bearing the burden of a stigmatized illness. As church members, the guide says, they are often denied opportunities for leadership and are unable to find pastors and caregivers prepared to minister with them.

The new policy will address causes of serious mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome normally associated with war veterans that is increasingly seen in prison and homeless populations. The study guide is directed at churches that want to help ameliorate or even prevent mental illness. It also seeks to help church members address unwarranted fears by engaging in upfront discussion. 

The most common problem faced by church members and pastors, for example, may be depression, according to the study guide. 

The new policy will also address how to ensure fullest possible participation by people living with mental illnesses in the life of the church and in society. 

The members of the task force are Robert A. Butziger of Albuquerque, NM; Ethel M. Charles of Hollis, NY; Mary Helen Davis of Louisville, KY; Thomas Crawley Davis of Wilmington, DE; Timothy C. Engelmann of Burlingame, CA; Kum Ock Kim of Bayside, NY; Matt Morse of Taylor, MI; José R. Rodriguez-Gomez of Hato Rey, PR; and Alyce Woodall of Brunswick, ME. 

Brenda Burch Gales of Conyers, GA, is chair. One elected ACSWP committee member also is part of the group: B. Gordon Edwards of Stillwater, OK, who is ACSWP's current chair. Susan Dunlap, who teaches pastoral care at Duke Divinity  School in Durham, NC, serves as consultant.


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