Helping faith leaders help others: NAMI Santa Clara County

Helping faith leaders help others: NAMI Santa Clara County
NAMI Santa Clara County hosts its FaithNet program convening in May 2022.

A mental health diagnosis can plunge individuals and their families into crisis — leading some to turn to their faith leaders for support. Though they are not mental health professionals, faith leaders are leaders of communities that can provide a safety net for mental health patients and their families.

“When someone is diagnosed, I think the first reaction is ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why my loved one?’ — which is followed by speaking to a faith leader to answer those questions,” said Rovina Nimbalkar, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Santa Clara County. NAMI Santa Clara County hosts FaithNet, a program that provides faith leaders an understanding of mental health issues and the resources to help individuals and their families. The program also works with clinicians to help them understand the role of spirituality in mental health.

In spring 2022, Silicon Valley Community Foundation awarded a Faith Community Action Grant to NAMI for its FaithNet program. Even though NAMI is not a faith-based organization, its outreach to faith leaders in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities, and its intersection in mental illness and the networks formed by faith communities made it a perfect candidate for the grant.

Providing mental health support as a faith leader and organization

According to Nimbalkar, many faith leaders have good intentions when helping their constituents, but they don’t have the right training, tools or knowledge to adequately support someone who is facing mental health issues.

Cindy McCalmont, a United Methodist pastor who has led a congregation and has herself experienced mental illness, attested to this.

“My training as a pastor had been to recognize that there’s a mental health situation and then refer, refer, refer,” she said. McCalmont serves as the pastoral lead of the FaithNet leadership team with NAMI Santa Clara County.

One issue with the focus on referring people to mental health professionals, McCalmont said, is that although treatment is important, that focus left the impression that treatment would be a one-time event and then the person would return with the challenges behind them.

“But that’s not how it works,” McCalmont said. “Many people have mental health challenges for their whole lives. They may be on medication and still have symptoms.”

What’s worse, some faith communities may even ostracize members who are struggling with mental health issues.

“I can tell you any number of stories of people who have gotten kicked out of their church because of mental health symptoms,” McCalmont said. In one case, she said, a person who was manic was told by Bible study leaders that they could no longer attend because the leaders didn’t know how to handle the person’s behavior.

Some families say "we cannot tell our pastor what’s going on, because the pastor is just going to say, ‘You need to pray harder,’” McCalmont said. “Some of that is rooted in the form of Christianity and some of it is rooted in the culture.”

Instead, faith leaders and communities need to learn tools for providing ongoing support to those with mental illness and their families.

“Faith and spirituality can be enormously beneficial for people in dealing with mental health challenges," McCalmont said. "If people with mental health challenges can feel welcomed and embraced by their faith communities, the faith communities can improve the outcomes by offering hope, community and ritual.”

A grant to fuel outreach

One of NAMI’s strengths is that it trains networks of people to carry their message beyond the immediate group that participates in their programs. FaithNet holds monthly “Mental Health 101” trainings for faith leaders that include information on different types of mental illness and first-hand accounts from people who have experienced mental illness, the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the role faith has played in recovery. NAMI also does ongoing outreach, working closely with faith leaders and clinicians to provide trainings, resources and support.

“What we’re trying to do is eradicate fear and ignorance,” McCalmont said. “Part of what has to happen is to get rid of the stigma in the church, among faith leaders, among congregations — so if someone is experiencing mental health challenges, they don’t feel like they have to hide that and stay away from the church.”

NAMI’s FaithNet program had been receiving grant funding from Santa Clara County, but that funding expired in June, so NAMI has been seeking new sources of money. NAMI found out about the Community Action Grant program through SVCF’s website.

“The grant we received from SVCF is very helpful because it is enabling NAMI Santa Clara County to continue providing its FaithNet program,” Nimbalkar said.

Supporting diverse communities

SVCF’s Faith: Community Action Grants program supports faith leaders and organizations to advance equity and racial justice. One of the program’s main goals is to help faith leaders build and strengthen their networks.

“Building the capacity of faith leaders to adequately support their own constituency is the reason why we felt NAMI is a wonderful candidate for a SVCF Faith: Community Action Grants,” said Mauricio Palma, director of community-building at Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Through FaithNet, NAMI engages with the diverse communities in Santa Clara County — reaching out to the faith leaders who have strong roots in local Black, Hispanic, Korean and Vietnamese communities.

One piece of a larger picture

FaithNet is just one way NAMI Santa Clara County, which has two full-time staff members and close to 60 part-time staff, supports mental health needs in the county.

The group’s helpline, staffed by trained staff members and volunteers, offers confidential support to individuals affected by mental health issues, as well as their families. NAMI also facilitates support groups and a Community Peer Program that matches mentors and participants to help set them on a path to recovery. It also holds educational programs in several languages for individuals, families and service providers. NAMI’s outreach work includes presentations about early signs of depression and anxiety to middle school and high school students.

In October 2022, NAMIWalks Your Way, the group’s largest fundraiser, will be held in person for the first time since before the pandemic.

“NAMI is one of the few local organizations that deal with the experiences of people experiencing mental illnesses and their families and the intersection of faith,” Palma said. “They are bringing their expertise to a network of faith-based organizations so that those organizations can adequately support their own constituencies dealing with mental illness in their respective communities.”

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