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Faith Communities Outreach to Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families

Compassion calls us to reach out to persons with Mental Illness and their families and justice demands we work for systemic change.

Four Issues For Faith Communities To Focus On

Compassion - Reach out to those in crisis and are hurting
Presence - Journey with those in crisis
Information - Help congregations be aware of stigma and needs of families and individuals
Justice - Work for systemic change to improve the lives of persons with major mental illnesses and their families

For information on religious outreach visit:

NAMI FaithNet

Mental Illness Ministries

Pathways to Promise




Sacred Creations

By AJ French


“Today I fight for life to the same extent which I once fought for death.”

This is a statement I often make during recovery trainings and public presentations. It’s true. I once pursued death because nothing of significance was expected of me. Expectation is powerful. The pressures of expectation can bring great anxiety while the absence of expectation cultivates an environment of vulnerability because we are each created for some kind of greatness.

My childhood was painful. My adulthood has also been painful—more painful than any hallucination I have experienced. When my mental health began to deteriorate, I approached a woman a leader at my church. As I described the turbulence of my thoughts and emotions and calls for help, I was apologetically told, “AJ, we don’t do that here.” Even today those words feel like a stake being driven through my heart, because I know if I had asked for any other kind of assistance, I would have received a different response.

I left that church. Years later, I sought out a new congregation and confided in another woman in leadership. As I was sharing my struggles with her, she said to me, “AJ, I think there’s more going on here than regular life challenges. I think you should talk with someone about this.” She then referred me to a local mental health agency. I don’t believe this ministry leader was any more compassionate than the woman I had confided in many years ago. The only difference is that she was better informed and that made her able to recognize and respond to my mental health needs, as well as my spiritual health needs.

I wish I could tell you that everything became much better after I found a new church and obtained mental health care, but the truth is that everything became much worse. I began attempting suicide on an increasingly regular basis. I had numerous psychiatric hospitalizations and at some point, began physically abusing my body. I experienced homelessness. But more debilitating than not having a house was that I had no hope. I was experiencing a hollow existence as death loomed all around.

There were three monumental messages of hope that changed the trajectory of my life. In Illinois, the Division of Mental Health (DMH) has a slogan: The expectation is recovery. In other words, for the first time in my entire life, a message was clearly communicated that it was expected I would get better. Another monumental message of hope came from my Pastor who continuously says “People are sacred creations of God.” He initially was making reference to having high regard for others when I somehow realized I needed high regard for myself.  This message is consistent with a third powerful message from the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator curriculum, which states that I should hold myself “in unconditional high regard.”

Today I serve as Executive Director of Sacred Creations, an Illinois not-for-profit with statewide membership compromised entirely of individuals living with mental health conditions. We are presently developing a training template designed to equip faith communities with cultural competence regarding the mental health needs of congregants. I also work as a trainer for NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program and love teaching people how to share their personal experiences in public venues. 

Sometimes people look at my accomplishments and make assumptions. They did not witness the moments when I literally lost the ability to speak out loud. They have not seen me leave a room in tears because the noise was so painful. They were not present when I was told I would never work again due to a psychiatric disability, nor can they fathom my risk for institutionalization. Observing the dilapidated lives of others while maintaining an expectation of greatness is not easy for anyone. It takes real courage to see what is unseen after decades of disappointment, and it takes strength to fully realize the reality of recovery. For those who saw this within me, thank you. Today I fight for life because all people are sacred creations of God.

Most Catholic parents of my mother and father's generation named their children after saints.  My parents chose the moniker Thomas for me but never told me which Saint Thomas they had in mind.  Early on in grammar school, the nuns encouraged all of us to choose a saint with the same name as our own as a "patron saint."  By studying our namesake saint, we would then have a role model to assist us on our spiritual journey.  Interested in finding a Saint to identify with, I poured over a "Lives of the Saints" book my mother had given me.  It described four saints named Thomas.  I had choices!!

The first Saint I looked at was Thomas Aquinas.  He was very smart, a "Doctor of the Church."  He wrote the Summa Theological, the greatest theological  treatise of his time and for centuries after.  My mother encouraged me to take this saint as my namesake role model.  However, the brilliance of Aquinas seemed beyond what I could achieve and certainly too much to live up to.  How could I aspire to be someone that bright and well educated?  I crossed Aquinas off the list.  Next I found St Thomas More.  I really liked and admired him.  He became chancellor of England and widely known as a man of great integrity.  However, he was beheaded for his Faith.  This was definitely a problem for me.  While I was taught martyrs had a straight path to heaven, I didn't really want to aspire to be one!  Thomas More was out as y patron saint.  Third on the list was St Thomas Beckett.  He became chancellor of England and a Bishop.  He also was known as a person of integrity and honesty.  Unfortunately, like Thomas More, he was killed because of his faith.  Another martyr - I ruled him out too!  Then I discovered Thomas the Apostle.  He sounded like someone I could relate to and feel a kinship with.

Just as when I first read about him, the story of the Apostle Thomas characterizes for me a very human experience of God and faith journey.  If you recall, Thomas, probably a fisherman meets Jesus and is enthused about what he hears and experiences.  He listens to the word of God, takes it into his heart and lives it along with his fellow believers.  Thomas and his friends try to understand the full meaning of what they hear but never completely do.  Despite not fully comprehending the message, Thomas and the Disciples feel certain they are on the right path.  They experience a peace and joy beyond what they ever had before.  Then unexpectedly Jesus is taken from them and put to a horrible death.  Thomas' world is shaken to the core.  Devastated, he is now left to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream.

Incredibly, the disciples inform Thomas that Jesus appeared to them!  Who can blame Thomas after experiencing the high of following Jesus and the low of seeing Jesus put to death for exclaiming to the other apostles hiding in the upper room "I won't believe unless I see His nail marks and put my hands in his wounds!"  This declaration was a very natural response to a crisis experience of life, a despairing remark from a wounded believer.  Even though others reported seeing Jesus resurrected, the distraught Thomas wanted to see for himself.  Deeply wounded, feeling abandoned, and not wanting to go through the pain of seeing hopes and expectations dashed, he required proof.  Despite Thomas despair over losing Jesus to the cross, God never abandoned Thomas.  God was always there even when Thomas doubted.  His friends never abandoned him either for they led him to the upper room where Thomas did experience the risen lord.  He once again could feel God's presence and he believed!

The story of Thomas the Apostle is very human and a practical expression of what we may experience in our faith journey.  Especially those of us who have a family member or loved one who has a major mental illness or those of us who themselves have a mental illness.  We too may have been going through life with little or no doubts and then just like Thomas our world gets turned upside down and we have to deal with the harsh realty of mental illness.  Do we have doubts?  Of course we do.  Do we question God?  Yes, it wouldn't be natural not to.  Do we lose our faith?  NO, faith is a gift from God, it is always there, but sometimes our doubts blind us to our faith and to the love God has for us.  We have to work through those questions to uncover or rediscover our gift of faith.  It's the hard part of our faith journey.

Doubts, while unsettling, are a very natural part of our human thought process.  It is in the questioning, the seeking of answers, that we are lead to a deeper relationship with God.  Thomas doubted but he never gave up!  Through a combination of the grace of wanting to believe and having friends that encouraged him and stuck with him, Thomas found his way back to the upper room.  Doubts can spur us like Thomas to look within and search for truth.  It is through this journey, this path that we are often led to a deeper relationship with God.  So ironically then out of one of the worst experiences of life, dealing with a major mental illness for example, we can be lead closer to God.  Being in or dealing with crisis raises profound questions that as a faith filled people we seek the answers for.

Just as Thomas had the need to see the nail marks and touch the wounds of Jesus in order to believe.  We need to touch the woundedness in ourselves to see that God is present to us and loves us.  We have to touch the of feeling isolated and stigmatized in order to experience love and acceptance.  We have to touch the wound and hurt of the past to experience the grace of the future.  We have to understand the fact that God doesn't cause mental illness or punish us with mental illness, rather God is always there for us to help us through the pain and frustrations and heartache of dealing with this brain disease.  We have to touch the wounds of anger and frustration to become disciples of hope and redemption.

And where do we seek these answers??  Through our prayer life we open ourselves to God's grace.  Meditation and reflection help us to be open to the Spirit.  Equally as important, we seek these answers in the community that surrounds us.  In the early days of Christianity, scripture explains how the community of believers lived as one in heart and mind and shared everything in common, the good and the bad.  Just as Thomas came face to face with Jesus with an assist from his friends, we come face to face with Jesus through the love of those around us.  Jesus is present to us in our families, our friends, the people who minister to us through the church, through those who provide us with healthcare, through NAMI and our support groups.  We are in this journey together.  We share something in common and because we share it together it lifts our burden.  That is why NAMI is important in my life.  That is why the faith community to which I belong is important to me.  Both call me to prayer.  They are communities that care in a world that often time doesn't seem to care.  I am inspired by the faith of the people in these groups, by their strength, by their tireless efforts to seek justice for people with mental illness and their families.  Through them my faith is continuously renewed and I am able to get in touch with my own woundedness.

We are the face of Christ to one another; we are the helping hand of the Redeemer who not only gives us a better tomorrow but also gives us a better today.  Together we build His kingdom each day and every day.

Thomas Lambert

Each Day

  1. I will recall that I am a child of God.  I am one who is created out of Love.  I am chosen, good, holy and have purpose...a task to perform here on Earth before I return to the Father.  I deserve to be treated as a person who has value and dignity.

  2. I will embrace my illness or my family members illness as a friend this day looking for what it is teaching me about the mystery of God and Life.

  3. I will not allow the stigma of mental illness to defeat me this day.  I will choose to have power over stigma by detaching myself from the stigma.

  4. I will talk to someone today who will encourage me to see my goodness and holiness as a child of God.  Maybe we will share a prayer together for one another.

  5. I will look for humor and reasons to laugh and be happy.  Quiet joy will be my goal.

  6. I will read a passage from Scripture or something from a book of devotion, inspiration or spiritual reading that will encourage me to trust and hope in the power and love of God.

  7. I will seek twenty minutes of solitude, silence, prayer this day.  If my mind won't quiet down, if my thoughts keep racing, I will offer that as my prayer to God.  If necessary and helpful, I will listen to soothing instrumental music or inspirational/religious music to quiet me and remind me that God is present.

  8. I will walk outdoors marveling at a sunrise, a sunset, the song of a bird, the soothing colors of nature...the serenity of green grass, a blue sky, the softness of the pastel colored blossoms of Springtime and the peaceful waters of a river, lake or stream that ripple and flow.  I will remind myself that everything in nature is a reflection of the Creator and pleases the Creator just as it is and so do I just as I am.

  9. I will delight in the knowledge that we are each created different because it is in our differences we make a more powerful and beautiful whole.  We each reflect a different aspect of the mystery of Life and God.  Individually and together we are a Masterpiece!

  10. In God is my hope and my joy.  I will give honor, glory and praise to God knowing and trusting what God has in store for me.  We do not seek or like suffering but our suffering can make us strong in many ways and more compassionate and loving to others...our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Knowing for sure that although I long for God,  God's longing for me is even greater.  I will rest in that knowledge this day.

Rita Sebastian Lambert

Workshop on Spirituality                             



For more information on how faith communities can be involved in ministries of compassion, presence, information and justice contact NAMI Illinois for brochures, speakers and/or workshop information.


NAMI Illinois

Telephone: (217) 522-1403


Email: namiil@sbcglobal.net