From left, Mark Burnette and Kim Burnette
ALBANY, Ga. — A family that has been touched by mental illness is giving back to its community by battling something that has traditionally been viewed in a negative light.
Byne Memorial Baptist Church has announced the formation of a new support group for people with mental illness and their families called “Renewed Minds.”
For now, the group is meeting on the first Tuesday of the month. It is part of a new outreach ministry at the church designed to address the needs of a population of people who suffer stigma, rejection and hurt as a result of mental illness.
The group is being led by Byne members Mark and Kim Burnette, who have experience through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in educating, as well as facilitating classes and support groups, for people with mental illness and their family members.
“We moved here in January, and the community was very welcoming,” said Kim Burnette. “My son has been sick (with a mental illness) for 10 years, and will not step in a church because of the stigma.
“When I came here, I asked the minister (at Byne) about his view on mental illness. He said he had been praying for a ministry.”
Kim Burnette, a mother of three, has struggled with mental illness herself. She had post-traumatic stress disorder for a while, and was recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Her first husband was an alcoholic, which ended up killing him, and likely had a mental illness in his lifetime.
“I had to deal with my own stuff, my husband’s stuff and my child’s stuff — and I felt like I had no support,” she recalled. “With mental illness, if you are not the patient, you are not the concern — and you don’t know what to do.
“In my case, I wasn’t the patient.”
Kim Burnette compares the stigma attached to mental illness to what HIV-positive patients used to go through.
“It’s like a curse for most people,” she said. “HIV is not looked at the same way it once was. I hope it will soon be the same way with mental illness.”
The church has scheduled “Renewed Minds” in conjunction with NAMI, making sure the meetings do not conflict with the outreach being provided by the area affiliate.
The pieces came together to make the group’s establishment a reality over the course of a few months. The first meeting took place last week, and will likely be moved to the third Tuesday of the month after the new year.
In acknowledgment of how Kim Burnette has gotten through her struggles with mental illness, she said the group will maintain a faith-based focus — and what is discussed in the meetings remains confidential.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to come, but it is Christ-centered,” she said. “(In the group), we pray and relay on scripture.
“We don’t have the strength to deal with these things alone.”
Something like this would be especially helpful for this region, Kim Burnette said.
“There is so little for this population of people,” she explained. “Most people are afraid to come out and be a part of it. We want to help build the courage for people to come.
“There is a high population of people that are sick and won’t get help.”
For the first meeting, there were five people that showed up. As it recruits more members, patients and family members will eventually break out into separate groups. Outreach is also planned to other churches in the community.
All that is asked of a potential member is to call before attending a session, its co-founder said.
“We hope this will spread,” she said. “Nobody is forced to say anything (at the meetings), we just want people to feel comfortable.
“We talk and address issues, as well as the things we can work on with God.”
One of the primary issues most mental health patients deal with is fear, and adjusting to what is referred to as the “three-legged stool” — or the medical attention, support and faith — attached to mental illness recovery.
“Fear is huge,” Kim Burnette said. “Mental illness is very unpredictable. The bottom falls out, and you don’t know what you’re going to do before it gets better.
“It is not God for everyone, but knowing more is ahead makes a big difference. We are giving a place where people are accepted and loved, and we all need that.”
Most of the people that know of the group have been supportive of the concept, Kim Burnette said.
“The church is thrilled about it because they think it will make a big difference with people,” she said. “Back when I was dealing with everything, I didn’t have this.
“Sometimes the best teachers are others who have gone through the same thing. I’ve learned as much from these groups as they have from me.”
Kim Burnette has been with NAMI since 2002.
For more information, call Kim Burnette at (229) 288-1986, or Mark Burnette at (229) 288-1925.