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Faith Community Advocacy in Virginia

by Margaret Ann Holt
Virginia Interfaith Committee on Mental Illness Ministries

How important it is to have "all hands around the table" when it comes to dealing with mental illness!  Sometimes, the faith community gets left out of the group of advocates working on behalf of persons living with mental illness.  Yet, the faith community is a valuable resource for education, support and advocacy.

When a person of faith begins developing the signs of mental illness, they often turn first to their faith community leader or friends for advice and help. These faith persons want to help but don't always know how.  That's where NAMI FaithNet comes in.  Mental health education, awareness, and advocacy resources for faith communities and NAMI members are available through this Web site.

Let me tell you about advocacy efforts in the state of Virginia.

In 1998, the word went out from the advocates in the Virginia Mental Health Association and NAMI that they would try for a fourth year to convince state legislators that Virginia needed Mental Health Insurance Parity.  They had tried valiantly for three years with no progress resulting.  Many advocates felt that Virginia would never adopt Mental Health Insurance Parity.  That fourth year, that plea went out through the informal faith community information grapevine:  "If you want mental health insurance parity, now's the time to make that call to your legislator or give up hope of ever having it in Virginia."

Many faith persons contacted their state legislators for the first time to make the request for Mental Health Insurance Parity legislation.  That groundswell from a previously silent population turned the tide for Virginia.  The legislation proposal was passed unanimously within the Senate Finance Committee, and later, the legislation was passed by the Virginia State General Assembly in 1999.  Many advocates acknowledged that it was the contact by faith community members that made the difference to ensure passage.  Incidentally, many of those people of faith were not NAMI members.

Two other examples of faith community advocacy in Virginia:

(1) On June 19, 2003 the Virginia Conference United Methodist Church passed a resolution urging the Virginia General Assembly to continue the Mental Health Insurance Parity legislation adopted in 1999 that included a "sunset clause" to take effect in 2004.

(2) On June 16, 2004 the Virginia Conference United Methodist Church passed a resolution urging each United Methodist Church to designate one Sunday a year as Mental Illness Awareness Sunday.  Helpful resources were made available for congregations.

We all rejoice that as of October 3, 2008 our Federal government adopted the National version of Mental Health Insurance Parity legislation as part of the H.R. 1424 Economic Stimulus Relief Bill.  The portion that deals with Mental Health Parity is found in "Title V: Additional Tax Relief and Other Tax Provisions", Subtitle B: Section 512.  You can view a summary of this legislation or the complete text online.

NAMI members need to be aware of the huge impact that faith communities can have in providing education, support and advocacy on behalf of persons with mental illnesses.  NAMI FaithNet is a valuable information and networking resource for you, your NAMI affiliate and faith communities.

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