In rural Washtenaw County, faith leaders are working with mental health providers to manage the impact of COVID

This article is part of health status, a series about how Michigan communities are evolving to address health challenges. This is made possible by grants from Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

As in much of rural Michigan, residents of the communities of Chelsea, Dexter, Grass Lake, Manchester and Stockbridge in Washtenaw County are grappling with the increasing mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While 5 Healthy Cities Foundation, which serves the five communities that had effective wellness initiatives prior to the pandemic, its leadership has sought additional ways to address the burgeoning crisis. One solution she identified was to hire and equip Washtenaw County faith leaders to help.

A foundation survey conducted early in the pandemic found that 26% of respondents viewed a faith-based organization as one of their top ways to stay connected to their community.
Lori Kinz.
“We have always known that our faith communities play an essential, important role in keeping people socially connected and addressing health and wellness needs,” says Lori Kintz, outreach and public relations coordinator for 5 Healthy Towns.

5 Healthy Cities asked the National Association for the Mental Illness – Washtenaw County (NAMI WC) to facilitate a faith leaders conference on November 9, 2021.Resurrecting from the Pandemic: The Role of Faith Leaders as Shepherds Through a Mental Health Crisisbrought together faith leaders from the five congregations with representatives from NAMI WC, Michigan Medicine, St Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospitaland Mental Health of the Washtenaw County Community. Together they developed strategies to reach the communities of faith leaders.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with other faith leaders in the area and hear what they are experiencing in their churches and mental health communities,” says Pastor Dillon Burns, Manchester United Methodist Church. “Knowing that what we’re experiencing in my church and our community is really similar and reflects the larger community, and knowing that we can all work on it and share ideas and resources is really valuable.”

5 Healthy Towns originally brought faith leaders together in October 2019 to launch Health Ministry in Action, an initiative that helps support the well-being of communities at large.

“We really tried to inspire faith and lay leaders to take a more active role in helping people connect to wellness resources and live a wellness lifestyle,” says Kintz.

As COVID-19 further exacerbated isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide, mental health became a prevalent focus.

“It wasn’t just the loss of health. It was all of the loss and all of the grief that people experienced — loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of loved ones, loss of family traditions, loss of opportunities to travel,” says Kintz. “These are really important losses for a lot of people.”

“Ongoing mental health issues that crop up in every community are so rarely addressed or addressed,” adds Burns. “We see churches and faith communities as a valuable place where people are already connected to a community, and to be able to use that community as a place to share resources and help people with all sorts of mental health issues.”

Another project that emerged from the collaboration, the A great connection Website launched to “improve connections, optimism, resilience and engagement in the 5 Healthy Cities Region”. Residents can search the site for information, resources, and events that support their mental health.

“It was possible for us [post] one of our winter Christmas services on the site: our ‘Longest Night’ service, a night of contemplative, quiet worship…a ​​space comfortable for someone going through a difficult time,” says Burns. “We’ve had people who were welcoming to us, I’ve never had.”

Faith-based groups are a staple of NAMI

Judy Gardner, chief executive of NAMI WC, was not surprised by the escalating mental health crisis in the 5 Healthy Cities region.

“From my personal observations, there is an increase in stress and anxiety centered on labor shortages, children at home and parents who have to work. It was stressful all the time,” says Gardner. “We’ve seen an increase in our participation in support groups. Luckily, we’ve been able to handle the surge in requests.”
Judy Gardner.
She’s seen data documenting similar trends across the country and seen how NAMI WC is dealing with mounting calls for help.

“We’re excited because we want everyone to be talking about mental health and mental illness. That’s one of the pluses of what’s happening during the pandemic,” Gardner says. “We’re able to tackle more stigma because more faith communities and different cultural communities come in and say, ‘Hey, we want to know more about what this is about. We want to be better at dealing with stress.’ There are resources you can use to weather the storm.”

Nationally, NAMI has a long history of working with faith communities to share its mental health resources, so it was logical for NAMI WC to participate in the 5 Healthy Towns initiative. NAMI has found that working with religious leaders and their communities is an effective way to reach large groups of people and educate them about available mental health resources.

“People trust their faith communities. Often their faith communities are their first responders,” says Gardner. “People who are experiencing stress or need turn to their faith leaders for this type of support. We felt that by working with faith communities we could give them the information we had on managing stress and dealing with mental health crises. And they could work with us to take the message to the larger community, especially in rural communities.”

Gardner and Burns agree that some faith communities have inadvertently created additional stigma around mental illness. Ideas that insanity is caused by spiritual forces still exist, despite the fact that they have been dispelled. Or current folk wisdom says, for example, that one can “Too blessed to be depressed.” The collaboration of a region’s religious leaders with mental health resource providers is a powerful strike against the stigma and misinformation that prevents people from getting the help they need.
Dillon Burns.
“There have been uncomfortable parts of our history, in terms of religion and Christianity, how we’ve dealt with mental health — the interplay between someone who has a mental health disorder and the way that can be co-opted into a spiritual thing” , says Burns. “It kind of undermines their good care from psychiatrists and can be a really damaging thing. … Psychiatrists have so many resources, so much education, that as a pastor I don’t have.”

“We’ve talked about this frustrating idea of ​​praying it away, but there’s evidence that there’s medication that will help, or talk therapy if you don’t want to take medication,” adds Gardner. “Untreated depression leads to suicide. People don’t want to die. They want the pain to stop. We want to reach more people and let people know they are not alone, especially those who are isolated and experiencing depression and anxiety for the first time.”

The younger face of insanity

Adolescents are particularly affected by the COVID-19 mental health crisis. National, more youth than ever are reporting anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts — and more teens than ever are taking their own lives. According to Kintz, these numbers are reflected in the 5 healthy cities region. In response, St Joseph Mercy Hospital – Chelsea will offer Adolescent Psychiatry First Aid Training for faith leaders and others.

“We’re very excited because our collaboration is really improving the mental health conversations in the 5 Healthy Cities,” says Kintz. “The obligations of these organizations are great. We have the County Mental Health Mill. We have Michigan Medicine and their entire focus on behavioral health. We have the hospitals. And the faith community is just very strong in our five cities. So I think we will be strong. We just keep going.”

Burns agrees — and is thrilled to have mental health resources available for his community, young and old.

“As a Christian pastor, I believe there’s a really strong theological basis for working with a person’s overall health,” he says. “Caring for people, which I believe churches are called to do, affects absolutely every aspect of a person – their physical health, their mental health, their spiritual health. You are. To be a place that heals or supports people in any way, I think it really requires looking at the whole person. And that absolutely includes mental health.

As a freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker’s favorite subjects are social justice, wellness and the arts. She is the development news editor at Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her greatest achievement is her five amazing grown children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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