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FaithWorks
By Ethel Ware Carter

Faithworks

A shamefully deficient mental health care system and the story of Nehemiah led an Atlanta psychiatrist to begin a faith-driven initiative to help citizens of Georgia who suffer from mental illness.

Georgia’s state mental hospital system was found critically deficient by the U.S. Department of Justice last summer. This crisis in care was explored in a 2007 series in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution which documented patients who were neglected and physically abused and a series of suspicious deaths. The death of fourteen-year-old Sarah Crider illustrates a disturbing aspect of this crisis, its impact on children. Prescribed an assortment of medications with the common risk of constipation, Sarah was found dead of complications from a bowel obstruction on the morning of February 13, 2006. Her death was entirely avoidable. It was one of at least 136 suspicious deaths in Georgia's state psychiatric hospitals during the previous five years.

Dr. Branko Radulovacki explained in an OpEd piece the revelation that led him to develop FaithWorks.

For months, I, like many other Georgia residents, have been following this tragic story. And like them, I have been waiting and hoping that the governor and other legislative leaders will do something meaningful to solve this crisis. That hasn't happened. I now realize that citizens like me need to get involved. I asked myself: What should I do? How can I make a difference? I thought about picking up a book I'd received for Father's Day -- it's about social activism (no kidding). Instead I picked up the Bible and opened it to Chapter 2 of Nehemiah.

You will remember that Nehemiah, royal cupbearer to Artaxerxes I of Persia, was saddened when he heard of the desolation of Jerusalem. He fasted, and prayed, and mourned for the holy city. Then, he acted — seeking the king’s appointment as governor of Judea and permission go to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls as a first step in protecting the people. He went armed with letters to secure assistance and safe passage; he went with a plan. Nehemiah was acting in obedience to his faith and out of love for his fellow man. Dr. Radulovacki said, “I, too, realize that I am called to do something . . . to speak out and act on behalf of those who can't or won't -- those who will suffer the consequences of our state's lethargic response to the mental health crisis.”

As a psychiatrist in private practice, he was familiar with the challenges of treating the mentally ill. He understood the speed with which steps must be taken to help the suicidal, addicted, or psychotic. Dr. Radulovacki insists that Georgia needs a hospital system that can give patients the help they need, when they need it, for as long as they need it.

He also knew that the stigma of mental illness often leads to the isolation of the mentally ill from their community. This separation may leave the community untouched, ignorant of the critical needs of the suffering, and unresponsive. The separation may also mean that we do not embrace those among us who suffer from mental illnesses with the love our faith requires of us.

Dr. Radulovacki responded to a question about turning a moral call into a reality.

Last summer, God called me to respond to the state mental health crisis. At that time, there was very little momentum among mental health advocates. I prayed about it and felt God was leading me to meet with leaders of several organizations, including the Carter Center, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Mental Health America. These were productive meetings, but we were missing a piece of the puzzle. We needed to be able to talk about helping those with mental illness as a moral imperative -- it seemed like too many people just didn't care. It became clear to me that God wanted to respond to this crisis by engaging his people, the faith community. So, I took a presentation to the Carter Center and urged them to run with it; they said it was a great idea and encouraged me to pursue it. Then, I took it to my home church and pitched the idea to my senior pastor. Vic Pentz patted me on the back and gave me an encouraging push but he didn't take the ball either. Then I realized, I was trying to hand-off the vision to people I thought had more influence and more ability to bring it to reality. But God wanted me to do it. I was called to reach out to faith leaders across many faith traditions. So I organized the first FaithWorks meeting at Peachtree Presbyterian Church (hosted by Vic Pentz and attended by the Rev. Joanna Adams, the Rev. Gerald Durley, Rabbi Ron Segal, Ethel Ware Carter of the Regional Council of Churches, Johnny Myers, Robin Gruber from Johnson Ferry Road Baptist, Allison Mitchell from Lazarus Ministry, and others).

FaithWorks brings together faith leaders from a broad spectrum of religious institutions and nonprofit organizations. Its shapers are committed to reframing the crisis in mental health care as a moral and spiritual issue. The present system with overcrowded and understaffed hospitals and inadequate community mental health services has led to neglect, abuse, and death. FaithWorks intends to educate our community and promote effective solutions, equipping the faith community to act on behalf of those with mental illness who have no choice but to place themselves under the state's care. FaithWorks is inspired by Jesus’ love and will act to show that love.

The FaithWorks website, faithworksga.com, details the short history and plans of this initiative and contains a concise history of the development of the crisis in care for Georgia’s citizens who suffer from mental illnesses and their families - - all of us. There you will also find the FaithWorks faith leaders’ petition to be presented to Gov. Perdue requesting specific steps that can be taken now.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) honored Dr. Branko Radulovacki as a 2009 “Exemplary Psychiatrist” at the American Psychiatric Association annual conference in May. The annual award honors psychiatrists who have "gone the extra mile" in their commitment to excellent care, reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, and working closely with NAMI members in their communities. Honorees are nominated by individuals and families who are directly affected by mental illness.

Dr. Radulovacki spoke of the future of FaithWorks:

One of FaithWorks' current initiatives is to reach out to families of those whose loved ones have died in state psychiatric hospitals during this crisis. Our sole purpose is to show compassion for their loss and facilitate the healing process.

FaithWorks is broadening to become a mental health movement that builds partnerships between mental health advocacy organizations and faith communities throughout Georgia. The purpose is to minister to all those with unmet mental health needs -- whether by education, advocacy, providing resources and services, reducing any stigma, or empowering those suffer any form of mental illness to seek and find help through their faith communities.

Any fears? The need is so great... and God's call is so HUGE! I feel overwhelmed at times by all He wants me to initiate and all He wants done. I worry about how. I am also afraid of dropping the ball; I have been entrusted with much. My dream is to see the vision realized and to see all that God has put in my heart happen. It will happen by God's grace and my obedience.

Of his family Dr. Radulovacki says, “We are a family bound by our love for one another. We have a deep sense of gratitude for all God has done for us, and all that he has promised to us. We are learning more and more how to follow where God leads.”

About the Author

Ethel Ware Carter and her husband Belfield are thankful for the community at All Saints’ — songs in the morning and friends on the journey.
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