Churches and other faith communities on the West Side looking to connect their members with mental health resources just got some new leverage to further that effort. 

The state of Illinois announced in November that it will allocate a $500,000 grant to two local affiliates of the National Alliance for Mental Illness — NAMI Chicago and Oak Park-based NAMI Metro Suburban — to enable those organizations to collaborate with faith communities in areas across the state hardest hit by COVID-19, including Austin and West Garfield Park. 

Rachel Bhagwat, director of growth and engagement with NAMI Chicago, said the organization has long partnered with faith communities, but the funding will allow NAMI to intensify its efforts amid a resurgence of COVID-19. 

“We’ve been working around this for a couple of months already,” she said. “We’ve been doing phone calls and emails; we did a community discussion on Zoom to connect with folks and bring them in. We’re also providing free education sessions for these congregations virtually, where we bring in mental health clinicians and people with mental health experience.” 

Bhagwat said the funding will last through the remainder of 2020. Faith communities interested in accessing those resources can submit requests online at or call 833-626-4244. Individuals looking for support services can visit the website and call that number as well. 

“We are honored for the opportunity to continue providing mental health support and education to individuals, focusing on communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” stated Kimberly Knake, executive director of NAMI Metro Suburban. “Partnering with faith leaders in these communities is a natural fit, given the impressive work already being done.” 

Steve Epting, senior pastor of Hope Community Church in Austin, had been partnering with NAMI well before the state funding materialized. He said the additional resources are critical in communities on the West Side. 

“It’s amazing the amount of stress that we find our parishioners under these days,” Epting stated, adding that he has partnered in the past with Bridges of Hope, NAMI’s initiative to educate faith communities about mental illness. 

“We brought Bridges of Hope into our church to help leaders get trained in how to identify those with mental health issues, which turned out to be a great asset. What I learned was that more people needed the information than I realized,” he said. 

Alexa James, CEO of NAMI Chicago, said the work of faith leaders in supporting people dealing with mental issues “has been made even more crucial during this difficult year.” 

According to a statement, NAMI officials explained that both NAMI Chicago and NAMI Metro Suburban “have seen a sharp uptick in the need for mental health support this year. Since March of this year, NAMI Chicago’s free Helpline has been at more than twice the volume it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began.”

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