News /Faith leaders join forces in unique mental health and spirituality training
By Jenee Darden
On June 30, a diverse group of faith leaders packed a Marriott Courtyard meeting room in Oakland for the Mental Health and Spirituality 101 training. Designed to help faith leaders be more supportive of those with mental health challenges in their congregations, attendees learned about topics such as signs and symptoms of mental health distress and what to do when medical and spiritual practices oppose one other.
PEERS Spirituality Liaison Minister Monique Tarver facilitated the day where attendees heard from speakers of various spiritual backgrounds.
The day opened with Tarver sharing that faith communities are often the first stop for help when one is in mental health distress.
"The fact that so many individuals and families utilize the supports of the various faith and spiritual communities as a first choice to deal with mental health concerns speaks volumes in terms of how faith and spirituality is viewed as an essential component in their wellness journey," Tarver said.
Tarver was inspired to create a mental health curriculum for faith leaders after noticing both common goals and areas for improvement among diverse spiritual communities.
"The purpose of the training is to bring the best intentions of the faith, spiritual, ethnic, and mental health communities to forefront so that we focus on the common goal of wellness that unites us rather than continuing to focus on the things we allow to separate us," Tarver said.
Amanda Garcia, who lives with PTSD and is a resident of a shelter run by the nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, shared her story of mental illness and seeking spiritual support with attendees.
In the span of four years, Garcia lost her father, two sons, job, and marriage. She found herself homeless, struggling with PTSD. When Garcia moved to the Bay Area, she turned to a church for help, but was not welcomed when they saw she was homeless and had an unclean appearance.
"I was in mental distress and in need of something. I went [to a church] and no one approached me," Garcia shared. “No one said, 'Welcome.' They looked at me and moved away from me. It kind of validated all of the bad things I was already feeling."
Garcia emphasized that spiritual leaders are in a unique position to help those in mental health distress and should be welcoming, not isolating.
"We need the faith community to reach out to us," Garcia said. "I know there is help outside of myself. Having that and saying 'Okay God, I'm letting go of the guilt' — which is the hardest thing to do — and having somewhere to put that helps me move forward."
Today Garcia does not attend a church. Instead, she finds her spiritual community and support among other BOSS residents who meet to study their faith together. She challenged faith leaders to adhere to the ideas and information they learned during the day, such as inclusion, openness, and listening.
"Every person who comes into your church, your temple, your synagogue — greet them in a way that's appropriate for your beliefs. Let them into your fold and help them find comfort in any way possible."
For more information on the training, visit the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative website.