ABSECON — Sayuris Mendoza credits her success in recovery to a combination of support from her church family and her mental health family.
“The spiritual part of my life helps keep me grounded, despite my mental illness and living with bipolar disorder,” she said. “I have a healthy relationship with God, and when I’m taking my medications and getting help, I feel more sane and on track.”
It is because of people like Mendoza, 32, of Atlantic City, that mental health advocates stress the role of pastors, rabbis, ministers, imams and other faith leaders in getting congregation members connected to treatment and support in their communities.
“There are a large number of individuals who could be attending your congregations who are struggling with mental health issues or have mental illnesses,” said Francine Bates, board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Atlantic-Cape May chapter.
About 20 mental health professionals and South Jersey faith leaders attended the chapter's Clergy Connection Seminar Wednesday, Oct. 18 at Absecon United Methodist Church.
The event aimed to provide community leaders with education and resources they can use when helping individuals or families with mental health issues and co-occurring substance use disorders.
Bates said mental illness and mental health issues affect thousands of people in New Jersey. Nearly 2,900 people are living with schizophrenia in Atlantic and Cape May counties; another 25,500 people live with major depression, and more than 67,000 live with anxiety disorders.
The Rev. Christopher Miller, of Absecon United Methodist, said knowing those statistics helped him figure out about how many people might be living with those disorders in his own congregation.
“What I take away from this, is that when I look at my average attendance on Sunday mornings, I can see that there are people there who have some of these things, and they might not be talking about it,” he said.
Abbie Katz, a member of the NAMI board of directors, said some people seeking help for mental health issues may first turn to the leader of their church, synagogue, mosque or place of worship, and religious leaders can connect those people to mental health professionals if they know about the resources available in their communities.
Christine Miller, director of family services at the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, said she also sees people who are in treatment and support groups who are looking to join a spiritual or religious community, but may not know where to turn.
The association recently launched a data project that is collecting information on faith-based organizations so it can eventually create a database for people to use when looking to join religious or spiritual groups in their community.
“If somebody comes to us, we’re able to say, ‘Part of your wellness includes spirituality,’” Miller said. “We want to be able to look into the database and connect those people to you. We really do believe that spirituality and faith is an important component of recovery.”
Loyal Ownes, senior director of clinical services at AtlantiCare Behavioral Health, shared information at the seminar on new and ongoing services offered that are aimed at helping people with mental health and addiction issues.
Ann Thoresen, senior director of programs at Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, gave seminar participants links to programs designed to treat mental illnesses, as well as wrap-around programs for housing and justice-involved services, for those whose mental illness results in their becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.
Fern Fine, a NAMI board member who is the caregiver for an adult child with a mental illness, said the goal is for everyone to work as a team to provide the best support to individuals with mental illnesses and/or co-occurring substance use disorders and their caregivers.
“We use the word ‘chaos’ a lot in NAMI. Without having this information when the chaos hits, everyone gets confused and upset,” she said. “This is a team effort, and (faith-based leaders) are a big part of that team.”
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