Someone You Should Know: Joe Padilla of Mental Health Grace Alliance (Part 1)

Every now and then, I like to write about people or organizations I think you should know. In this post, I’m featuring an organization I often mention when I speak, or when people ask me about Christian resources to help individuals and families affected by mental illness: Mental Health Grace Alliance.

I talked with Joe Padilla, a friend of mine and half the team who co-founded Grace Alliance (the other is Dr. Matthew Stanford, another person you should know). Joe currently serves as president and CEO of the organization. As with so many other people, his passion for helping people affected by mental illness comes from his own experience. I’ll let him tell you more…

Tell us about the history of Mental Health Grace Alliance and how you were founded.

The idea and vision came from two different angles. Dr. Stanford often discusses the crossing of our paths as a “grace collision.”

First, through the years Matt had often been approached by multiple Christian leaders and congregants trying to understand mental health issues. Needless to say, he was taken aback by the incredible stigma and misconceptions. This was part of the reason he wrote his book Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. In addition, his research between the interplay of mental illness and the church revealed the reality of what was really going on in the church. Thus, he was providing numerous presentations and subsequently wrote his second book, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped, which is a wonderful resource to help us understand the common struggles associated with mental health issues and how to respond. It’s a book every pastoral or lay leader should have on their bookshelf.

As for us, my wife, Jessica, and I graduated from Baylor University in 1995. We were newly married and joined our church’s missions organization to be involved in overseas ministry and development work. We lived and worked overseas for 10 years in Asia and Africa, in sensitive and war-torn, hostile areas. Along the way, our dream of a big family brought us five beautiful girls. After 10 years, we came back to the United States to serve for an additional two years in our main headquarters office, overseeing training, other missionary teams, and local ministry responsibilities.

Early in our missionary career, my wife began showing signs of depression and anxiety, which protracted to debilitating states, and ultimately this was the reason we needed to come home from overseas. Now stateside, over the next two years my wife went from debilitated to dysfunctional. We tried every type of ministry care, went through doctors, counseling, medications, and more of the mental health system. Nothing worked! This is when our church leaders introduced us to Dr. Matthew Stanford (he attended our church) and we started to get clear understanding and he helped us better navigate care. He also provided me with incredible friendship and whatever help he could give. Dr. Stanford and our family doctor were refreshing faith affirmations because many of the mental health professionals were causing my wife to have more faith confusion and were confrontational with me because I was a “pastor.” One of the professionals counseled my wife to divorce me–but had never, ever wanted to talk to me personally. To top it off, at that time the local mental health support in our city was not helpful; in fact, I went to a support group and walked away more discouraged.

Then, at the end of that two-year journey, I was sitting with my good friend and ministry director, and we were weeping together, as he explained it was time to leave the ministry to focus on caring for my wife and kids. It had been eight to two years of suffering, and we’d lost our dream job, our marriage and family were totally destroyed, she’d been diagnosed with no hope, and we were slipping into despairing debt. You can imagine my pain and the questions I had for Jesus.

I was working side jobs and we were living off whatever savings we had, and I was doing all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for my family. I was exhausted, but my wife was worse off than me, having become psychotic and unable to maintain hope. Then I began talking with a family friend, “Buzz” Moody, who had a loved one with a mental health disorder and was a loving Christian and a NAMI-trained teacher. I would spend hours talking to Buzz, most of the time just weeping. Her support was similar to Dr. Stanford’s, except she had the lived experience and she was able to identify and talk to me in ways that no one else could even touch–even professionals.

I found no full Christian support or practicals outside the resources Dr. Stanford and a few others had written and my long talks with Buzz. My approach to God was, “Lord, if there is grace in this for my wife, my children, and myself, then make grace practical, because I’m tired of people telling me to pray another prayer, fast, read more truth, and ‘believe and trust you’…Jesus, show me!”

The other side of this was that I started to go through a personal reformation of my own theology and understanding of God in this whole journey. It was a radical shift of perspective and personal experience with him. I found more rest and love. Then I started to see how evidence-based research even supported some of my new insights–seeing the beautiful connection between science and faith! These are the conversations that took Dr. Stanford and I into deeper friendship.

That began a full two months of my own extensive research and reading on mental illness (I still haven’t stopped reading countless research or articles on neuroscience, psychology, and other science and medical insights). Then I discovered the idea of a more whole-health mental health recovery approach. All I had been told was that we could get acute care and make the best of life as best we could.

Long story short, I started applying these new whole-health mental health recovery concepts into daily life with my wife. I told my wife, “Honey, let’s just focus on us. Let’s just focus on getting our lives back. We don’t have to go back to ministry or do anything or go anywhere, let’s just take the next two years for us.” I started mapping out life for her; she could only sit on the couch most days. Anyhow, month by month she started to improve more than we had seen in the last eight to ten years. After a year and a half, she had weaned off five or six medications and was down to just one medication. This was mental health recovery, but that sounds boring–this was our grace comeback story! The kids at the height of this were 13 years old down to 3 years old, and they journeyed through right along. I explained things to them and never made them feel responsible, but I tried to keep their childhood a childhood. However, this experience and journey deepened the depth of who they are today.

That was about eight years ago, and my wife is still on one medication at a very low dose. Life is not perfect, and we know how to manage the dips, but we don’t go into the pits anymore. In fact, today I would say the strongest pillar and rock in my personal life is my wife.

From that experience, I had this constant nudging in my heart to help others in this journey. I had looked at all of Dr. Stanford’s research with the church, and our own experience confirmed the research findings. I was sad to know that the last place you would want to go for mental health support would be the church. For me…I love Jesus and the church, and it struck me that this is not a failure issue. This is an opportunity.

I continually felt that heart nudge to get involved to help the church move into a new opportunity. I fought it for months! I didn’t feel God “calling” me to this; instead, I felt him inviting me. He didn’t call me into this with a vision, calling, or plan. I literally felt him saying to my heart, an invitation to “love them well.” That’s it. With that I just started to develop some ideas in my heart about support and helping people from all I knew clinically and biblically.

So I met with Dr. Stanford, shared the whole idea and everything we could do, and a simple lunch meeting turned into a three-hour meeting. Then we met again to discuss everything about co-founding the organization. We didn’t even have a name; Mental Health Grace Alliance came later. Overall, at that meeting Matt said, “Joe, this doesn’t exist anywhere, I’m in.”

That began the Mental Health Grace Alliance journey. It quickly grew, and now after six years we have more than 100 groups across the world, an office in Texas, and one in California.

To be continued next week…

 

 

Joe Padilla is a Baylor University graduate and a licensed and ordained minister. As CEO of Mental Health Grace Alliance, Joe has co-authored all the curriculum and programs, conducts trainings, oversees all the operations and development, and serves as a consultant with other mental health organizations. In addition, Joe has been a keynote presenter across the nation for various mental health conferences, seminars, and churches. Most importantly, Joe has deeply enjoyed coaching hundreds of families and individuals across the U.S. to discover their own mental health recovery.

6 Comments
  1. Terra Anders says:

    At different points in my life I have been the daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend of those struggling with mental illness. Through much of my life I struggled in the darkness, doing my best to understand and care for those I loved who seemed shackled by depression, bi-polar and anxiety disorders. I felt completely alone and ill-prepared for this journey that God had chosen for me. I connected with therapists, doctors, support groups and workshops and read as much as I could. Fast forward to present day and I find myself embracing my work as a Grace Alliance Family Grace Support Group facilitator. Sharing this Christ-centered curriculum with those who are reaching out for help has been such a privilege for me. I am grateful to the GA founders who worked so hard to make it possible for families with loved ones who are battling mental illness to get tangible tools that really work when implemented consistently. WE STILL need to work hard to remove the stigma from mental illness, so all those who deal with this can find hope, love and balance in their life, and NEVER feel they are alone in the struggle. Grace Alliance is doing such a good job of meeting that challenge head-on.

    • Amy says:

      Terra, thanks for sharing about your own experience. It’s awesome that Mental Health Grace Alliance has made such a difference for you, although I know that doesn’t make it easy. And thank God you have become a support for others as well!

  2. Gail says:

    Are you in Melbourne Australia too

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