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For many individuals, spirituality and faith are necessary to achieving and maintaining recovery. Therefore, faith leaders are essential community partners in inspiring and assisting people with mental and/or substance use disorders in their recovery process.
Every September, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (http://www.samhsa.gov), within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (http://www.hhs.gov), sponsors National Recovery Month (Recovery Month) to increase awareness of behavioral health conditions. This celebration promotes the message that behavioral health is essential to health, prevention works, treatment is effective, and people recover.
The 25th annual Recovery Month theme, “Join the Voices for Recovery: Speak Up, Reach Out,” encourages people to openly discuss mental and substance use disorders and the reality of recovery. It aims to foster public understanding and acceptance of behavioral health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or addictions, including ways that faith leaders can speak up in their communities and reach out to offer support.
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Faith leaders play key roles in promoting recognition of behavioral health issues so that people living with mental and/or substance use disorders realize they are not alone. Fear that other people or neighbors in their community would have a negative opinion of them was one of the most often reported reasons given for not receiving treatment for a substance use disorder from 2009 to 2012 – a problem faith leaders can help address by speaking up about mental illness, addiction, hope, and recovery.1
By incorporating more frequent messages about the reality of recovery from mental and substance use disorders at services or in conversations, faith leaders may spark self-awareness for someone struggling with an issue or promote broader acceptance by the spiritual community.
Faith leaders can be positive influences in these interactions with members of their congregations by:2
- Providing counsel and resources;
- Giving recognition for recovery efforts made;
- Offering encouragement and support; and
- Inviting congregants in recovery to testify.
These actions are especially valuable in reaching youth who may need help – many of whom consider religion an important part of their lives. In 2012, 30.4 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 reported they had attended religious services, and 74.4 percent said their religious beliefs were important to them.3 During these developmental years, faith leaders have an opportunity to reach young people and spread the word that prevention and treatment options exist, and recovery is possible.
For all members – youth and adults – of a congregation, faith leaders can provide a comfortable, safe setting to talk about mental and/or substance use disorders. Faith leaders can refer to the following tips to guide them in their efforts to support the recovery community:
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- Develop educational materials for fellow clergy to use during a sermon or event, and/or include behavioral health support information in a faith-based bulletin or newsletter.
- Foster interfaith dialogue and activities with other congregations in the community to create broader awareness of mental and/or substance use disorders.
- Develop materials and local resources to share with the congregation on prevention, treatment, and recovery support services.
- Plan a Recovery Month event to celebrate members of their congregation who are in recovery.
Faith leaders offer spiritual guidance and support to members of their communities, particularly to those in need. For example, among adults aged 18 or older with a major depressive episode who received treatment in the past year, 19 percent saw a religious or spiritual advisor. In addition, faith leaders can reach out directly to members of their communities to encourage healthy choices and support recovery.4 Their close connections to community members make faith leaders the optimal partner for the recovery community in their efforts to spread the reality of prevention, treatment, and recovery. Following are steps to reach out:
- Learn about the faith-based organizations and leaders.
- Make a personal connection with leaders; use mutual acquaintances, if possible.
- Build a collaborative partnership through mutual respect and issues of joint concern.
- Maintain relationships through ongoing communication.
- Suggest that faith leaders seek out resources/relationships from local agencies or state mental health or substance abuse authorities.
Many faith-based organizations offer services that can be used in addition to treatment or as a path to recovery, depending on the needs of the person and family seeking services.5 One such program is the SAMHSA/CSAT-funded Access to Recovery (http://www.samhsa.gov/grants/2010/ti-10-008.aspx), which provides community and faith-based organizations with a host of treatment and recovery support services.6
Faith-based leaders can also make an impact through the following activities:
- Promote events and get congregations involved by using the appropriate social media channels, such as Facebook or Twitter. A national survey of more than 11,000 congregations showed that 40 percent of congregations used Facebook in 2010,7 and congregations that use technology were said to be more innovative, joyful, thought-provoking, and inspirational than those that do not.8 Faith leaders can integrate messages of hope and healing into their social media posts.
- Obtain a certificate in spiritual caregiving (http://www.nacoa.org/pdfs/application%20for%20cert.pdf). The National Association for Addiction Professionals and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics developed a certificate for faith leaders to increase their knowledge and awareness of substance use disorders.
- Host a mutual aid meeting, such as an Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.aa.org) meeting, Narcotics Anonymous (http://www.na.org) meeting or SMART Recovery (http://www.smartrecovery.org) meeting, or implement a peer-operated recovery community center (http://www.samhsa.gov/grants/blockgrant/Peer_Operated_Recovery_Center_Services_05-06-11.pdf), which is designed to meet the social, educational, health, individual, and other non-clinical needs of individuals required for sustained recovery.9 Give members of the congregation the chance to feel acceptance and fellowship from others in the community by creating a forum where they can openly share and discuss their experiences.
- Partner with a local health commission or wellness center to orient them on issues involving or affecting public health, including behavioral health issues.
- Sponsor a Mental Health First Aid (http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs) class and/or get training as Mental Health First Aid Instructor (http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/become_an_instructor).
- Enroll in advanced training in mental and substance use disorders to become more knowledgeable in the area. Use SAMHSA’s treatment locator (http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov) to provide options for people in need of behavioral health support services.
- Host a health fair, and during the event conduct brief screenings for people with at-risk levels of alcohol usage.
Additionally, faith leaders are often called upon to support their communities during situations that have no precedence or blueprint, such as a man-made or natural disaster. These events can cause panic, spur distress, and lead people to seek out a religious service. Faith leaders have a central role in healing communities and helping them return to normal through their words and actions. Following a disaster, many people experience loss and trauma and the possibility of mental and substance use disorders increase. Faith leaders can offer comfort, solace, and resources in these difficult times.
While the well-being of others is often the priority of faith leaders, they should also be aware of their own physical and emotional health at all times. Self-care techniques may help faith leaders be more effective in their role as a community leader and recovery advocate. The recovery community can lend advice or support if they think a faith leader is in need. Self-care tips for a faith leader include the following:10
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- Get enough rest and eat healthy foods.
- Pay attention to personal stress responses.
- Seek out family and friends for support.
- Try exercising or other physical activity to relieve stress.
- Engage in helpful, productive activities that are satisfying and useful.
- Follow the advice they would give others.
Make a Connection…
There are numerous ways to connect with faith leaders. Some options include approaching them after a service or community event, engaging them through their organization’s website or social media sites, calling them or leaving a message at their workplace, or emailing them to set up an in-person meeting.
The following are tips to keep in mind:
- Be mindful of the time constraints of faith leaders and offer them handouts or written materials about behavioral health if they are busy and to share with their congregations.
- Schedule an appointment with a faith leader during his or her office hours, in case he or she is busy or has other commitments before or after a service.
- Create talking points about prevention, treatment, and recovery specific to your community. Include citing a few facts about the national or community impact of mental and/or substance use disorders. Consult the “Mental and Substance Use Disorders: Fast Facts” (http://recoverymonth.gov/Recovery-Month-Kit/Resources/Fast-Facts.aspx) document in this toolkit.
- Ask a faith leader to integrate positive messages of prevention, treatment, and recovery into a future sermon, reflection, or bulletins.
- Be inclusive of all faith leaders to help expand the reach of your message.
- Send a written thank you note after you’ve made contact, and be sure to follow up with any information you promised to send.
Additional resources for faith leaders are provided in the “Targeted Outreach Resources" (http://recoverymonth.gov/Recovery-Month-Kit/Targeted-Outreach/2014-TO-Resources.aspx) section of the toolkit.
Inclusion of websites and resources in this document and on the Recovery Month website does not constitute official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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