A Vision for the Church: A Stigma-Free Zone

I recently talked with my friend Julie Baier, and I wanted you to be able to listen in on our conversation. Julie is devoted to helping people with mental illness and their loved ones receive good support, particularly in and through churches.

Julie is the co-founder of a church-based support group, a board member for a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and a loving mother who has seen firsthand how mental illness challenges families. I hope her knowledge and insight will be both helpful and inspiring to anyone thinking about getting involved in mental health ministry.


• Your interest in mental health ministry comes from your own experience. Tell us about it.

My husband and I have two sons. Both live with bipolar disorder of different types: my oldest with bipolar I and my youngest with bipolar II. My oldest was diagnosed almost 15 years ago, in his late teens/early twenties, which is typical. And my youngest in his early twenties.

We’ve been in the hospital with my oldest, we’ve been in court. All of the journey’s challenges, suicidal thoughts and plans, they’ve all been a part of our history, as a family together with our boys. We’ve been down all journeys of the emotional reactions to this kind of trauma and crisis. Both are currently in recovery, which is an amazing realization for a parent or any loved one, to know that there’s recovery possible. It may look different for each individual person, but it’s possible. And we’re grateful for that recovery period now.

• Tell me about the support group at Christ Church of Oak Brook and how it came about.

It was almost 14 years ago, about a year into my oldest son’s diagnosis. My husband and I went to a pastor in our church to try to sort out what in the world was going on with our son. While our pastor was very compassionate and helpful and prayed with us and gave us encouragement, he really didn’t give us any more than that. He didn’t know a whole lot about what to tell us about mental illness, and we weren’t even sure that was what we were dealing with. We were confused.

Then he was hospitalized. And that upped the ante. We were in desperate need, in crisis and trying to understanding what in the world was happening, how we could get help, what we could do to understand this better. At that point we went to a different pastor in our church, and she said, “I have no experience with this, but I do know someone in the church who is walking a similar journey and has been for a while. Would be OK if I told her and the two of you would meet and talk?” I said that would be great, and she put us in contact with each other, and we met and talked about what was going on.

This other woman helped me understand we weren’t alone. And she came back to me a few months later and said, “You know, what we just did, talking with each other, I feel like we need that in this church. Would you want to start a support group?” I said no, I don’t think I could do that because I’d never done anything like that before. She encouraged me to trust God in it. I prayed about it, and she prayed about it, and we decided to meet with the pastor of our care and prayer department, the first pastor we had gone to talk about this with our son. He said it would be wonderful if we could start something like that.

So we decided to do it, and we started on a very low-profile level. We only had members who came from referrals from the pastors of our congregation. So it was very small, very low-key. It wasn’t advertised anywhere. At that point, stigma was stronger than it is now, and honestly, she and I both felt the stigma big-time. We were afraid to make ourselves known.

It wasn’t until a few years into it that we realized that there was such a great need out there that we couldn’t stay silent anymore. So we started advertising in the bulletin, and it started to grow. About eight years in, we decided we wanted some structure. We had no formal training, didn’t really know what we were doing; we were just meeting and talking through things with people. We wanted to leave people with something valuable when they left the support group. She and I had both been involved with NAMI previously. So we contacted them and asked if we could do training.

Long story short, we were able to. It took a while to be approved for the training, but we did two full days of training, and we brought the NAMI model back to our church. That’s what we’ve used for almost 5 years.

The NAMI model is not faith-based, but we were allowed to adapt it to our setting. The people who come to our group know the group is facilitated from a Christian mindset and heart. We are allowed to pray in the support group and talk about spiritual issues as they come up. But the main focus of the support group always has been focused on the mental health journey. It’s not focused on the spiritual journey. In our experience, the people who desire this kind of support group, first and foremost, want some practical education. Most people come to us in crisis, either in an initial diagnosis or in the midst of a second or third crisis for which they’ve never gotten any support before. And they need practical talk: What is mental illness? Why am I seeing this behavior? We get to the spiritual journey when people are to that point in the mental health journey.

• What are some ways you have seen faith-based peer support make a difference?

A lot of people come into support not really knowing what to expect, looking for pat answers and things they can do that will make this all go away. But most of them, after a while, realize there are things they can do. We talk about the things we can do and work in the present moment.

Those who have come for a long time will tell new members, “This group has made a night-and-day difference in how I’m able to walk alongside my loved one on the mental health journey.” They are able to be a positive force in their loved ones’ recovery, as opposed to not making any impact or actually making things worse because they don’t understand. They say it’s given them more compassion for their loved ones and helped them understand what their loved ones are going through.

Some say it has saved the lives of their loved ones. If they had not come to support and learned everything that they learned, they don’t know how they would have proceeded with their loved ones. In retrospect, they realize that may have had deadly consequences.

More people have expressed that because our support group is faith-based and facilitated from the heart of Christ, they feel truthfully and honestly loved and cared about. When they leave a meeting, we don’t just forget about them because our hearts can’t. They become part of who we are. They become part of the family that we share in Christ, in this common experience. And they feel a powerful sense of “this matters” as opposed to going to a support group that just talks about their problems and then leaves and never thinks about or prays for each other or encourages each other.

• Tell us about your work with NAMI.

Currently I’m sitting on the board of directors for NAMI DuPage [in DuPage County, Illinois]. I work closely with the education department because in addition to the support group at Christ Church of Oak Brook, I also plan various educational events that are all offered by NAMI. For example, we plan four to six Mental Health First Aid trainings each year at Christ Church of Oak Brook. We are also going to host NAMI Basics; we’re going to host a Family to Family class and a Wellness Recovery Action Plan course for individuals who live with mental illness.

• How does NAMI intersect with faith communities?

Faith communities struggle with how to do mental health ministry, for a number of reasons. They don’t have the manpower, the pastors don’t have the time and energy, the finances are slim, and they don’t always know where to start, what to do.

NAMI has already done all of that for them. They don’t need to reinvent any wheels. NAMI can provide many educational programs and support group training, training for actual Family to Family classes, they can provide all of that at low or no cost to churches. All the church needs to do is designate someone to coordinate that, to plan these events and workshops, or to identify people who might want to be involved with the mental health ministry. NAMI does the rest of the work.

Our programs are evidence-based and overseen by the national NAMI organization, which has 39 years of experience in this area. They give churches an option for where to start. Instead of having to write their own materials or wonder what to do, they can plan one of the NAMI events to get started and see where it goes from there. I think we’re a great resource on many levels.

• What’s your ideal vision for the church and its relationship to mental health challenges?

I would like to see a stigma-free zone, where everyone touched by mental illness receives and enjoys the highest quality of life. That’s my vision. And it stands true for the world in general and for faith communities. That’s the overarching vision.

A smaller step would be for every church to have a mental health ministry working to make that church the safe and friendly place it should be for those who live with mental illness and their families. Because we go there first, typically, for help, it should be the place we can stay for that support that we are so desperately seeking when we go there first. It may not be the answer telling you what you need to do. But this is what our church has: we have this support group. We have this workshop that’s coming up. And we know how to refer you to other resources that maybe we can’t do but we know other people are doing.

• Why do you believe there’s hope for individuals and families affected by mental health challenges?

First and foremost, there’s hope in the Lord always because he is always working for our good and the good of our loved ones. There’s always hope because I know that God wants what we all want–a healthier creation, in every sense of the word, and mental illness is included in that.

Beyond that, God has been instrumental in allowing for and helping the minds he has created to develop new treatments, new medicines, things like NAMI to educate people about mental illness. We’re moving forward on those frontiers of understanding mental illness better. Ten years ago, we never talked about recovery in mental illness. Now we do because it’s possible. And it’s part of the truth that we’re learning about mental illness as the understanding is evolving.

There’s hope also because we’re attacking stigma more powerfully, and from many different angles, more so than we were before. Current events have forced the issue toward openly talking about mental illness. So there’s hope in that doors are opening, conversations are being started, and people are wanting to be more informed. I’m trusting that God is going to continue opening these doors, as I know it is his will to minister to those who are in need. And people who have mental illness, and their families, are definitely in need.

One of our principles of support is that we will never give up hope. It’s what I end every meeting with. Because it’s true. There is a tremendous amount of hope when it comes to this journey. I’ve seen it myself. My boys have enjoyed recovery. I never would have dreamed that to be possible. When they were first diagnosed, I thought, “That’s it. Their lives are over, our lives are over, they’ll never work, they’ll never get a degree, they’ll never have a family.” Now my oldest is married. He has two adopted children and a beautiful marriage. My youngest is working on a second masters degree. I never dreamed that would be possible, but I see that it is. So I’ve seen the hope. I’ve seen God at work and seen the hope become realized in my life.

  1. Please add me to your blog list. Thank you.

  2. Jennifer Salvino says:

    I want you to know that this post could not have found it’s way into my life at a better time. It is surely a blessing from God. You see, I myself suffer from mental health afflictions and I have been struggling with finding the right way to get help since relocating to the Chicago area. I don’t know exactly what God’s plan is for me yet, all I know is that it is written on my heart to be a part of breaking the stigma against mental health in the church and within Christianity in general. I have been writing an article the last couple of days centered around this very subject and of course my research lead me to this post. I know very well the work you have done Amy to try and break the stigma, and I actually have your book Troubled Minds at the top of my list of books to read for my recovery journey, but finding this article has literally brought tears to my eyes. I have been looking for a church that embraces those with Mental illness and maybe even a group or mentor to help guide me in my journey of healing so I can contribute more towards breaking the stigma. I had no idea of Julie’s journey or of the Christ Church in Oak Brook being so open and embracing to those with Mental illness. I would love to be able to meet her and check this church group out to see what next step God has in store for me. What a blessing to find this article and that it is so recently posted! God is good! Thank you both for all you are doing. God bless you.

    • Amy says:

      Jennifer, I’m so glad this came at just the right time for you! I hope you will check out the group at Christ Church of Oak Brook. God bless you as you seek to heal and to allow your struggle to become a blessing to others.

© 2018 Amy Simpson.