Ignorance and judgment once dictated her actions.

But that was before Carole Wills learned that an improperly functioning brain can leave a person struggling to make even the most basic of sound decisions. The longtime churchgoer began a journey of compassionate discovery after a family member was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I know that Christians often think that people always have free will,” said Wills, speaking by phone from her Indianapolis home. “But sometimes a (malfunctioning) brain is what’s driving a behavior.”

She will bring that insight and more when she speaks on “Creating Stigma-Free Congregations” at a National Alliance on Mental Illness FaithNet meeting from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in downtown Columbus.

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Last year’s gathering in the church and school cafeteria attracted 42 people from 17 churches, plus leaders such as Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Police Chief Jon Rohde, mental health specialists and pastors.

FaithNet is an interfaith resource network of NAMI members, friends, clergy and congregations of all faith traditions encouraging faith communities that are welcoming and supportive of persons and families living with mental illness.

Wills is chair of NAMI FaithNet Advisory Group, an interfaith educational outreach supporting people impacted by serious mental illness.

She also is former board president of NAMI Indianapolis and current mental health ministry resource consultant for Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Plus, she is founder and editor of Wellspring Mental Health Ministries and resource consultant for faith-based groups and NAMI affiliates across the United States.

To top it off, last year she launched the Interfaith Health Coalition that already boats 25 Indiana churches as members. She sees houses of worship as a key component to wellness and support when people are hurting mentally or emotionally.

“Faith communities are in one of the most unique positions to be dealing with mental health issues,” Wills said. “Because of the continuing stigma, there are very few people who will go first to a mental health provider when they know they need help. But they often will go to a member of the clergy.”

Twenty to 25 percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosable mental illness, according to NAMI figures.

Locally, churches such as St. Peter’s Lutheran and Community Church of Columbus have been part of a solution in recent years by employing full-time, counselors with degrees on staff to help minister to situations from substance abuse to general mental health.

Eric Riddle of Columbus, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s gathering and also last year’s meeting, has been among vocal proponents of blending the spiritual and the medical.

Riddle is vice president of the local chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and also a facilitator for the confidential, Christian-based Faithful Friends weekly mental health recovery support group. It meets at The Living Room church.

“When faith communities and mental health providers can work well together and understand the unique value that each brings to the life of an individual, the better our overall care for people will be in a community,” Riddle said. “Unfortunately, among some medical models, faith sometimes has been seen as a problem and not part of a treatment plan.”

For those who are wondering, Wills can quickly and easily point believers to Scripture about bring mercy and compassion to those dealing with mental health issues.

“Both in the Old Testament and the New,” she said, “there are many admonitions to lift up the oppressed and to release the yoke of those in bondage.”

The intersection of faith and mental health

What: National Alliance on the Mentally Ill FaithNet meeting with speaker Carole Wills of Indianapolis. Wills is chair of NAMI FaithNet Advisory Group.

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday with a free lunch served to participants.

Where: St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 719 Fifth St. in Columbus.

Seating: Limited, so those planning to attend should call, text, or email organizer Eric Riddle at 812-344-0185 or eric.r.riddle@gmail.com.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.