WEEKI WACHEE — One of the unheralded yet integral parts of recovery for those dealing with mental illness is prayer, local ministers and mental health advocates believe.
"We pray for others to understand,'' said Darlene Linville, president of the Hernando chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "We pray for adequate treatment during the early phases of an illness instead of later, when the illness has had a chance to cause immeasurable heartache. We pray for the families and individuals living with this devastating disease."
As part of that effort, NAMI in Hernando County will kick off Mental Illness Awareness Week with a candlelight vigil at Nativity Lutheran Church from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
The event will run simultaneously with similar events across the nation where candles will be lit and people will be praying together.
Linville said there are many misconceptions about mental illness.
"In the early church, some believed that a person with mental illness was possessed by an evil spirit," she said. "We now know that mental illness is a disorder of the brain and that 70 to 90 percent of those living with a mental illness lead normal, productive lives. Those are the fortunate ones who have access to medication, support and therapy."
Several local clergy will participate in the vigil including host pastor Kristin Wee, Hernando County Jail chaplain Mary Kerr and Steve Celinski, outreach minister and director for Recovery Ministry at Northcliffe Baptist Church.
Drawing on his own experience with depression, Celinski encourages people to talk with him if they need help.
"God uses people to help other people," he said, "and I love to talk to people one-on-one. You've got to show people you love them. You've got to give them that message of hope."
Wee, pastor of Nativity Lutheran, said several members of her church are active in NAMI and the church has hosted the vigil for several years.
"Mental illness is a problem in many of our family systems," Wee said. "People who have experienced mental illness are walking through a special kind of darkness. We are called as God's people to bring a light into the darkness in Christ's name.
"I find a great sense of hope and encouragement through some of these people who have struggled with their own mental illness and found the light in the darkness,'' she said.
Wee said in the past some people spent years in mental hospitals before there was a better understanding of mental illness. "I think things are a lot better today, but still we misunderstand a lot about mental illness. It's so bad when we segregate those people," she said.
New to the vigil this year, chaplain Kerr will speak about how having mental illness affects those in jail.
"A lot of people who are mentally ill get incarcerated," Kerr said. "They usually have to be in our medical department or a special needs department. Very honestly, sometimes there needs to be a different avenue for the mentally ill than just throwing them in jail.
"It really needs to be addressed," she said. "I'm hoping to encourage people to look at legislation to figure out how to handle these situations and perhaps for those in mental health to teach law enforcement how to be able to spot some of those things when they pick someone up (that would indicate they are mentally ill) and to perhaps have a place to take them other than jail."
On Friday, a group of local experts will gather at the Hernando County Jail to explore the newly established Mental Health Court and discuss the current mental health issues in the county. Corrections Corporation of America will explain its philosophy as it relates to inmates with mental illness.
Linville said that according to NAMI research, Florida ranks 48th among the 50 states in per-capita spending on mental health and that she has witnessed services for mental health worsen in the two years she has been president.
"The 2006 Health Needs Assessment for Hernando County identifies mental illness as one of our largest health problems," she said. "Our local mental health center, Harbor Behavioral Health Institute, has people seeking treatment sleeping in the waiting room because there are no beds available.
"My worst fear is that in this economic situation, mental health will once again be hit with less funding, and we will then go ahead with building more jails and prisons because we cannot accommodate people in our communities. How sad. This is why we pray for adequate treatment for the mentally ill in Hernando County."