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Interfaith lunch attendees to consider ways to address mental illness within congregations

Photo by Ann Silver
At last year's "Learning from Each Other" luncheon, participants were encouraged to sit next to people of other faith traditions.

For 17 years, the Jewish Community Mental Health Conference at Temple Israel in Minneapolis has provided support, information and connection for people wanting to know more about mental illness and its impact on society.

While the conference has always been open to all faith traditions, most participants have been connected to Judaism. After last year’s event, inspired in part by Muslim American author and activist Melody Moezzi’s keynote presentation, the conference’s organizing committee decided to plan a luncheon where people from different religious traditions could come together to discuss ways to support congregants struggling with mental illness.

Julie Jacobs, a member of the Jewish Community Mental Health Conference advisory committee, said that organizers were intrigued by Moezzi’s message that faith traditions that deny or ignore the presence of mental illness among their members do so at their own peril.

“In Judaism, mental health used to be not talked about at all,” Jacobs said. “It is even more that way in the Muslim community. But we know that not talking about mental illness only makes things worse for people who struggle. That’s how the idea of having an interfaith discussion came about.”

The luncheon, called “Learning From Each Other: An Interfaith Conversation on Mental Health,” was held at Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Oct. 23, 2017. It was well attended, Jacobs said, and plans were quickly launched for another.

“The feedback from the event was positive,” she said. “Attendees decided that organizing an even larger interfaith conversation was an important thing to do. Every religion has people with mental health issues. We’re trying to bring people together to have a place to talk about that. This event seemed like a great way to get started.” 

Bridge building

Organizers of the first “Learning From Each Other” luncheon felt that it was important to encourage participants to interact with people from outside of their religious traditions. They built that ethic into all aspects of the event.

“We wanted people to have an opportunity to speak with participants from other backgrounds,” Jacobs said. “It felt important to expand the conversation.”

Participants were asked not to sit next to people from their own faith traditions, so the luncheon tables were full of lively interfaith discussion. 

“There are still some religious communities that just don’t talk about mental illness at all,” Jacobs said. “There is still a lot of stigma. There are members of those communities who want to change that, but don’t know how. Coming together with others at events like ‘Learning From Each Other’ helps us think of workable solutions.”

At last year’s luncheon, Jacobs said that she learned that different congregations provide a range of support for members struggling with mental illness.

“There are some churches that have a whole dedicated mental health staff,” she said. The situation is much different at her home congregation: “I belong to Shir Tikvah. We are growing, but we don’t have the space or the resources to have something like that. Hearing about what other faith communities are doing to support the mental health of their members helps all congregations no matter what their size grow and learn from each other.”

One topic that was discussed at last year’s luncheon was the importance of community members speaking out about their own struggles with mental illness.

Change happens within religious communities, Jacobs said, when “people who have had mental health crises start talking about their experiences. The more people are willing to talk openly, the more things will change.”

Jacobs has been diagnosed with depression. She hasn’t always felt comfortable being open about that fact in her religious community. 

“I felt like there was a lot of shame and stigma in the past,” she said. “Now I try to talk about it. I let people know. I’m an active member at Shir Tikvah and I’m viewed there with respect. When people hear my story it does reduce the stigma. I’m going to be talking about it more.”  

Second luncheon May 7

This year’s “Learning From Each Other” luncheon will be held from 11:30-1:30 on May 7 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis.

Jacobs believes that the event, like last year’s, will attract lay leaders and clergy, but it is also open to students in seminary or chaplaincy programs, as well as members of the general public.

“Anybody who is interested in mental health issues within a congregation or a spiritual community can attend this luncheon,” she said. “Participants will be learning from each other and sharing their experiences.”

The event will include an exhibition of selected works from “To Really See,” a collection created by members of Avivo ArtWorks, a community support program that offers art programming to adults with serious and persistent mental illness. Artists in “To Really See” created work that comments on the experience of taking medication to treat their mental illness. 

There will also be an interactive presentation by the Barbara Schneider Foundation, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides crisis intervention/de-escalation training to police officers, mental health professionals and community members.

“They will be providing an actor who presents with some kind of mental health crisis situation,” Jacobs said. “A volunteer will respond to illustrate how de-escalation can work. Then there will be a discussion.”

Luncheon sponsors include Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Minneapolis, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, Plymouth Congregational Church, Mt. Olivet Lutheran, The Basilica of St. Mary, Beth Jacob Congregation, Temple Israel, Muslim & Jewish Women of Minnesota, Sufi Center Minnesota, Mental Health Minnesota, Northwest Islamic Community Center and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.

Jacobs said that luncheon organizers are working to expand this year’s attendance.

“We are putting the word out,” Jacobs said. “We’re hanging our fliers at libraries and coffee shops. We’re also trying to get information out in the e-news for local Jewish congregations and other faith communities. The space holds about 200 people. Interest is high, so hopefully we’ll fill it up.”

The registration deadline for “Learning From Each Other” is April 23. The May 7 event requests a suggested donation of $8 to cover the cost of a box lunch. Online registration is available.

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