The Role of Faith Communities in Mental Health Awareness and Education Print
Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   

I appreciate the initiative by the faith communities education project and the National Alliance for Mental Illness ( NAMI) for the program tonight.  I am here, not only representing the Interfaith Alliance and the Muslim community but speaking as a Physician.  In a given year, about 20% of Americans have some sort of mental illness, to include major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder or at least anxiety disorder and panic attacks. In

Indiana alone , there are 41000 adults and 26000 children seeking psychiatric care ,2300 of them are in hospital . Nationally 30 million physician’s office visits are made annually for psychiatric conditions including 10 million just for major depression.  Although, 75% of such patients get successively treated, the remaining 25% continue to carry on with the stigma of long term treatment or some sort of mental illness.  About 40% of such patients with such emotional disorders turn to religion and its ministers for counseling.  Thus, seeking help from God through their ministers.  From national studies, it appears that many people turn to prayer and faith in times of crisis.  As a Physician, I feel that our brain, as an organ, just as any other organ of the body, has a right to get sick.  However, when our heart gets sick, we do no make fun of the patient, the person does not lose his job, become poor or homeless, but this does happen frequently when a person becomes mentally ill or is depressed.  One third of homeless patients are mentally ill because the family has abandoned them and they have no place to go. Heart patients are not confined to institutions for long term care but mental patients are as they are hardly ever placed in the home to be taken care of.  Mental illness leading to severe depression is also a common cause of suicide, violence and anger, poverty and homelessness.  Because of one member of the family being confined for long term in a mental institution, which if it happens to be a spouse, leads to a broken home and broken families as well as broken dreams.  It is for this reason that we are here today, to educate ourselves that mental illness should not have a stigma and the faith community has a role to support such patients and their families.  Religion, in my opinion, is not just a way of worshiping God but how to take care of fellow humans.  Thus, when the people of faith come out of the house of worship, they must go out on the streets and take care of the needs of people, whatever the needs may be.  In this regard, all of the religions are on one side of work in the name of God.  They join each other for the support of the poor, elderly and mentally ill.   When asked what actions are most excellent, Prophet Mohammed said “ to gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and to remove the suffering of the injured.

Those of us who are gathered here this evening, whether coming from a faith tradition or not, must pledge that we will do our best to support and represent the cause of the mentally ill who are not able to help themselves.  We will together fight against the stigma, misinformation, indifference and ridicule of the mentally ill in our society by educating our children, our youth and adults.  The families of the mentally ill deserve a compassionate, informed response from an educated faith community that even if some humans have forgotten them, God has not and therefore we, who are all of the time speaking on behalf of God, must act on His behalf in taking care of all those who are suffering with this illness.  We will take care of them as we would like to be taken care of when one of us is afflicted with a similar disorder in our life.  It is our personal responsibility and not just the responsibility of our government institutions to take care of the welfare of those in need, suffering from mental illness.

From address to the annual meeting of NAMI ( national alliance for mental illness ) Oct.7 ,2003. Held in Indianapolis.