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March, 2007

Grassroots Strategy:

Mental Health Education Seminars for Clergy

by Sherri Wittwer, Executive Director, NAMI Utah

Members of NAMI Utah have been assisting in offering training sessions for church leaders at various Utah sites during the past four years.

The purpose of these sessions, which typically take about two hours, is to:

  • help educate church leaders about the nature and incidence of serious and persistent mental illnesses
  • to create more empathy for the impact of these illnesses on individuals and families
  • to suggest resources to assist those in need. 

Although most of the presentations have been to congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in meetings that range from 150 to 900 attendees, they are available to members of any religious group. 

A session usually includes four speakers. The first is a mental health professional (a psychiatrist or other mental health provider) who describes illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, phobias, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and dual diagnosis.

The professional also explains the incidence of these illnesses in the United States today, their biological components, and how science can foster charitable understanding.  

Another specialist then explains how misconceptions about mental illness, particularly those perpetuated by the media, can create stigma that deters people from seeking treatment. 

A family member or consumer then tells a brief personal story and relates it to the “Stages of Emotional Reactions” as outlined in NAMI’s education programs. The stages are presented as a compassionate model that can help leaders determine what family members and consumers need.

The concluding speaker outlines resources available through church and community services, including NAMI’s programs.

Questions are taken from the audience on 3x5 cards and are being compiled into a frequently-asked-questions booklet. 

For congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presenters at clergy seminars use several concepts from Elder Alexander B. Morrison’s Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Illness published by Deseret Book in 2003.  Elder Morrison is a frequent speaker at these seminars (see bio below).  

Earlier religious outreach programs in Utah included a NAMI conference that featured Dr. Steven Waterhouse, pastor of the Westcliff Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas.  His 1994 book, Strength for His People: A Ministry for Families of the Mentally Ill, helped many NAMI members think through the interrelationship of mental illness and religious faith.

Elder Alexander B. Morrison: Friend of NAMI Utah

Elder Alexander B. Morrison served as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from April 1987 to October 2000, when he became an Emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. 

At the time of his calling, he was a professor and department chair at a leading Canadian University.  Elder Morrison was a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Health in the government of Canada, and has had extensive experience with the World Health Organization in Africa and elsewhere.  He earned his doctoral degree at Cornell University.

Elder Morrison has received numerous awards and honors, including the Service to Humanity Award of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, and the Distinguished Service Award of the Salvation Army, Salt Lake Basin Command. 

He continues to be active in community affairs in Utah, serving on the boards of a number of organizations, including the Utah affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Utah).  He and his wife of 57 years, Shirley E. Brooks, are the parents of eight children and 23 grandchildren. 

Elder Morrison is the author of numerous books on various religious and other topics, including Valley of Sorrow, a Layman’s Guide to Mental Illness, as well as more than 100 scientific papers.


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