Reaching out

Not unlike a doctor, a church offers a holistic approach to wellbeing – not just how to live well spiritually, but mentally and emotionally, too.

“It’s a natural thing, to go to your priest or pastor with a problem,” said Carol Sides, co-founder of the Lycoming-Clinton County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, speaking at an ecumenical luncheon at Pine Street United Methodist Church on Feb. 26. “Some people who have a mental illness are more comfortable going through churches instead of a doctor.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is the largest nonprofit mental health organization in the country, offering education, advocacy and support on a grass-roots level.

Although as many as one in four American adults suffer from a mental illness, it often goes undiagnosed or untreated. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45 million adults in the United States reported a mental illness in 2010, but less than 40 percent of them sought treatment – largely due to the stigma of needing help with mental or emotional problems.

Sides believes that the church can be enormously helpful in providing a safe, anonymous outlet for a person who believes they have a mental illness

“People are very comfortable with their pastors,” who offer prayer and advice and, in some cases, refer them to the monthly NAMI meetings held at the Robert M. Sides Family Music Center, she said.

Sides said the organization has been embraced by the local community since its founding about a year a half ago, holding fundraisers and awareness walks, and as word has spread, religious leaders are offering firm support as well.

“Gwen (Bernstine) contacted me after hearing about (NAMI),” she said, adding that it was Bernstine who invited her to speak at the luncheon.

United Churches now advertises NAMI’s meetings in its monthly newsletter, and some individual churches do the same, Sides said, noting that the church she attends – Our Lady of Lourdes in Montoursville – includes it in its bulletin every week.

“It’s a really good reminder,” she said.

The support of religious communities in helping those with mental illnesses can be crucial, Sides said.

“(Mental illness) is something that runs in a lot of families, families who attend church together,” she said. “Some people do something about it and some don’t, but having someone there who they trust can be the difference between seeking help or letting their illness take over.”

Although the organization doesn’t affiliate with any churches on a national level, it recently joined with Pastor Rick Warren, founder of the Saddleback Church in California, on the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church.

Warren’s son, Matthew, committed suicide last year after suffering from depression for most of his adult life.

The daylong mental health outreach program, to be held in April, is aimed at helping church leaders identify and reach out to those suffering from mental illness, and Sides feels as though it’s a natural growth for churches, who are often the first stop for those who need guidance.

“(Pastors) get approached about this more than you realize,” she said. “It’s free, it’s confidential … it helps families.”

Sides, who is involved with numerous community programs in the Williamsport area, thinks there is a special connection between what religion offers and what those with mental illnesses need.

“The seed was planted” for the group about two years ago, she said, after she attended a NAMI seminar in Harrisburg. A few months later, she was staying after a Sunday worship service at Our Lady of Lourdes to take some time for personal prayer.

“I thought I was alone in the church, and all of a sudden, this woman came up to me and told me that she had been depressed all of her life,” Sides said. “Then, she said to me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ and left.”

Sides said she knew then that founding the local chapter was the right choice.

“It was like a sign,” she said.

The next meeting of the NAMI PA Lycoming-Clinton chapter will be at 7 p.m. on April 15 at the Robert M. Sides Family Music Center, 201 Mulberry St.