Open Arms Project

A communication tool for the Open Arms Project, whose mission is to help religious educators of all faiths welcome and support every learner.

Monday, July 24, 2006

A great article

This is awesome:
After years of searching, Lisa Thomas finally found a church home for herself and her autistic daughter.

It wasn't easy. On a number of occasions, Thomas was asked to leave a worship service because her daughter's behavior in a Sunday Sschool class could not be controlled.

"Situations would occur, and an usher would come and say that Dione was being disruptive," Thomas recalled. She tried several different churches and, for a while, got a baby sitter on Sundays. But she never gave up her search for a church home.

"My relationship with God helped me to pull through, even when I got the negative end at church," said Thomas, now a member of St. Stephen's Baptist Church.

Thomas recently talked about her experiences at an interfaith workshop presented by the Partners in Healing committee of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. It focused on building support within congregations for families living and dealing with mental illness — from anxiety disorders and depression to schizophrenia and mental disabilities such as like autism.

"Families caring for someone with a mental illness face real specific issues," said Deborah Sorensoncq, MHA's director of education and training. "They can get isolated and feel very sensitive.

"The therapist can help an individual discover his psyche, while a clergy member can put him in touch with his soul." — Rabbi Samuel Karff, associate director of the John P. McGovern M.D. Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit.

Without the support of their faith community, families tend to withdraw when what they really need is to have someone pull them back into the fold." The intent of the most recent workshop, she said, was to encourage clergy members and lay people to be more accepting of mental-health issues. About a year ago, Thomas worked with Pastor Paul D. Landrew to create a "children's church" for children with disabilites.

"When Lisa first came to church, the matter-of-fact manner in which she approached the whole issue impressed me," Landrew said. When they discussed the children's church in terms of making resources available for parents, Landrew saw it as another way of demonstrating God's love.

On a recent Sunday, Thomas led her small group in praise and worship and watched proudly as they all raised their arms in response.

"It's a Sunday school for the children on their level," Thomas said. "We break the lessons down and deal with the behavior problems. It's an outlet for the kids, and it gives the parents the opportunity to go and enjoy the service."

Rabbi Samuel Karff, now retired from Congregation Beth Israel, was the first chairman of Partners in Healing, which was formed in June 2002. The effort began as a way to bring clergy and mental-health professionals together.

"I felt that there was a need for greater understanding," Karff said. "For one thing, the clergy and mental-health practitioners are partners and they do compliment each other. There is a need for them to recognize the value of each other.

"Some clergy have to appreciate that there are times when prayer and faith are not enough," he added. "Certain issues need to be addressed in different ways."

First, they discussed how to help clergy understand when a problem should be referred to mental-health professionals. Conversely, mental-health experts needed to know when clergy could help, or if faith was important in a client's life.

"There are ministers who do know to refer to us," said Encarnita Gomez, a therapist with Catholic Charities. "But a lot depends on how comfortable they feel. Some are afraid their parishioners will think they are dumping them. But you can give the pastors the tools to sell the idea."

Studies have shown that people are more likely to seek help from clergy before going to mental-health professionals, said Betsy Schwartz, MHA executive director.

"That's why it's so important that they are able to talk openly about mental illness in a way that doesn't stigmatize what a person is already experiencing," Schwartz said. "When a clergy member gives sermons about mental health and illness, it goes a long way to help congregants reach out to people."

The Rev. Linda Christians, who is in charge of caring ministries at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, came up with the idea of workshops that could be held in churches, synagogues and mosques around the city. Eight have been held since February 2005, with a total attendance of more than 400.

"I'm a former nurse, and even with my training and a degree in divinity, I still felt inept at dealing with depression or anxiety," said Christians, interim chair of Partners in Healing.
Because of the training she received with Partners in Healing, Christians now picks up on small signs she previously might have missed.

At the most recent workshop, she invited a St. Luke's member to talk about the difference his faith played in working through major depression. He also told the gathering how he was encouraged to use the church as a meeting place for a weekly support group sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Shirley Arbert, director of care and health ministries at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, has attended several workshops. She hopes to start a support group and has literature available at the Nassau Bay church on both physical and mental-health issues.
"For the last four or five years, we have had mental-health outreach. I have contacted everyone with mental-health needs that I am aware of, but we are a long way from where we would like to go."

For years Marsha Harwell heard a chorus of disapproval at church because her four children were disruptive. Comments ranged from "you don't pray or study the Bible enough" to "your faith is not strong enough."

Eventually her children were all diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and a mixture of bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder.

"We had more problems from the congregation than the clergy," Harwell said. "But we would hear teachings from the pulpit that would back up some of the comments made in church. That you don't need psychology, you just need to pray more and study the Bible. So even if they didn't intend to hurt those who needed mental-health care, they did."

Because her husband was in the oil business, the family moved often and bounced from church to church. Their best experience was a six-year stint at an Assembly of God church in Wyoming, where the pastor was a licensed counselor.

"He paid attention and tried to get the children to relax," she said. "He would go to school conferences with us and come over at the drop of a pin if something was wrong. But he never suggested a therapist."

Like Thomas, Harwell has found a caring church here. Now armed with a doctorate in the integration of religion and society, she voluntarily helps other members at Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy. Small victories, but Harwell and others working with Partners in Healing hope for more.

"All clergy of every religion should know how to recognize mental-health issues," she said. "And they need to understand that depression is not always a fleeting emotion but can be a biological disorder.

"I was made to feel like a failure as a Christian," she said, "but now I know better."

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