By LOU PONSI     4/7/2022

A Faith and Mental Health Forum held recently at Christ Cathedral centered around the role of the faith community in the area of mental health.

The forum, which was organized in part by the Orange County Sheriff ’s Department’s Interfaith Advisory Council, featured leaders from varied factions of
the community, each speaking on the impacts of mental illness in their area of focus.

Organizers also included Fr. Ed Becker, Episcopal vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Anthony Vultaggio, a member of the Diocese’s
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Commission.

The forum took place March 9 in the Arboretum with several hundred in attendance.

Virtually every speaker stressed the need for collaboration amongst all sectors to treat what is often a misunderstood and multifaceted issue.

“All of these sectors are dealing with growing demand for mental health and addictions and related challenges but all of them are doing it through the silo
of their own sector,” said Marriage and Family Counselor Marshall Moncrief of Be Well Orange County.

The nonprofit brings together a cross-section of public, private, academic, faith and other entities to create a community-wide, coordinated ecosystem to
support mental health.

“No matter what sector you are a part of, whether it is law enforcement, the faith community, academia, hospital systems and private businesses, when you talk to leadership about what challenges you face today, every single time, mental health and substance abuse will be among the top three,” Moncrief said.

Along with Moncrief, featured speakers for the March 9 event included Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes and Kay Warren, mental health advocate in the faith community and wife of Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren and Social Worker Veronica Kelley, head of mental health and recovery services for the Orange County Healthcare Agency.

“The Orange County Healthcare Agency sees mental health as an essential component of health,” Kelley said. “That includes recovery from addiction. It also includes our spiritual health, understanding who we are and what our purpose is and what our great goal, our greater aspects are in life.”

The agency serves close to 45,000 individuals with serious mental issues such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression and another 7,800 struggling with addiction.

The mission of Be Well OC is to employ a community-based, cross-sector strategy including all sectors to create a community-wide, coordinated ecosystem
to support optimal mental health, he said.

Individuals with untreated mental health issues often wind up having an interaction with law enforcement, Barnes said.

The jail system overseen by the Sheriff ’s Department provides above-average treatment and resources to men and women in custody, but more needs to be done to treat mentally ill individuals before they make contact with law enforcement, Barnes said.

“The first face someone sees in a mental health crisis shouldn’t be somebody with a badge and a gun,” the sheriff said. “It’s my life’s mission to break that cycle. I believe we can do this successfully as a partnership with collaboration.”

Warren spoke candidly about her own bouts with low level depression and mental health issues in her own family. Her son Matthew died by suicide nine years ago after struggling with severe clinical depression for most of his life, she said.

Speaking on the topic of the faith community’s contribution to mental wellbeing, Warren’s message was clear. Based on the spiritual principles universal to Christianity and most religions, not only does the faith community need to involve itself in mental health related issues, but faith leaders also have an absolute obligation to minister to mentally ill individuals within their congregations, Warren said.

“As far as I know, every faith group from every point of view, from every practice of faith, must have at their core, this unshakable conviction that if we were made in the image of God, then there is this stamp of the Divine in each of us,” Warren said. “And because of that, because we bear the image of God, every life is valuable. Every life is important. Every life is worthy of being cared for.”

With a population of 2.5 billion who say that they belong to a Christian faith, Warren said, the religious institution is bigger than any nation and bigger than any organization.

“So, we need the faith community to rally the community,” she said. “You are the trusted provider. You are the trusted voice that gets people to show up.”

Warren also cited a Baylor University study showing 25 percent of individuals experiencing a mental health crisis will reach out to leaders in their faith community, before going to a mental health professional.

“And there is enormous untapped talent, energy and brains, that if properly properly motivated, could make a gigantic dent in what we are talking about today, which is a mental health crisis, which millions of people are living with.”

Several organizations set up resource tables at the event, including the Diocese’s Office for Family Life, which provided information mental health ministry programs within the diocese.

Other providers included addiction treatment centers, the Catholic Charities of Orange County and Olive Crest, which serves families impacted by child abuse which OC Healthcare Agency.

“This is a perfect example,” Moncrief said of the forum. “When we get law enforcement in a room, the faith community in a room, clinical providers in a room and community, (we) start coming together to start drawing alliances really intentionally.”