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The Austin American-Statesman featured this essay by NAMI Austin Executive Director in its Saturday, November 1 edition.

When my mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor five years ago, our faith community organized a steady stream of homemade meals. Often my siblings and I didn’t realize we were hungry until a casserole would arrive and delicious smells would lure us to the table for a brief respite from our mother’s 24-hour care. After she passed away, I remember my brother who lived out of town saying, “I’m not leaving until the casseroles stop coming!”

We laughed. He loves to eat, but we all realized it wasn’t the food itself he hungered for. It was the sense of belonging, of being cared for in this most basic way when we needed it most. Food is an essential aspect of almost every faith community’s traditions and rituals. Food unites and strengthens our community bonds. A simple casserole becomes a delicious and nurturing reminder that in our search for healing and comfort, we are not alone. Author Wendell Berry may have said it best, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness.”

Unlike other medical illnesses, mental illnesses haven’t made it to the list of “casserole” illnesses in our faith communities. Seventeen months after my mother’s death, my daughter’s discharge from a brief but serious hospitalization for a mental illness found us hungry and alone. The hot meals that had sustained us during my mother’s illness were almost nonexistent. The stigma of mental illness kept us isolated and hungry for the healing comfort of belonging. We needed and wanted to know we were not alone.

When I share this experience with other families and individuals affected by mental illness, heads nod in agreement. Regardless of faith affiliation, we live in a culture which still sees mental illnesses as flaws in character or upbringing rather than the serious medical illnesses they are. The National Institutes of Health reports that approximately one in four or 61.5 million people are affected by mental illness which means our communities of faith are full of people who long for the reminders that they are not alone.

If the numbers are that high, why aren’t there more casseroles? According to a landmark 1999 United States Surgeon General report, stigma is “the most formidable obstacle to future progress in the arena of mental illness and health.” Unlike other medical illnesses, mental illnesses carry the weight of stigma. There was no disgrace in mother’s brain tumor, but the stigma of my daughter’s mental illness diagnosis kept away the casseroles and the healing and comfort they impart.

Not so long ago, there was a time when cancer and AIDS were also challenged by stigma. The shift in attitude happened slowly as our communities became immersed in both the facts and the real stories of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers affected by these serious medical illnesses. Education and storytelling are powerful tools for changing minds. Earlier this year, a small group of people began sharing ideas on how to use these tools to create communities of faith in which mental illnesses would join the ranks of other “casserole” illnesses.

On Thursday, November 13, the Austin affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Austin) is co-sponsoring a free day-long interfaith conference with the Austin Interfaith Inclusion Network, PLAN of Central Texas, Austin Presbyterian Seminary, Hope Presbyterian Church and the Diocese of Austin. “Out of Exile: Faith, Community and Mental Illness” will provide information, tips, tools and best practices plus opportunities to hear powerful stories of resilience. The goal of the conference is to help faith communities become places in which people isolated and exiled by mental illness feel welcomed, supported and comforted. Lunch and resources are included, and recipes for creating casseroles and welcoming faith communities will be provided.

Registration for the conference is required. For more information and to register, go to www.austinseminary.edu/Exile

or call 512-420-9810 for more information.

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