empowered and oppressed by the intricate ways in which parts of their identities connect."
Sara Gray (she/her), NAMI KDK Executive Director and trained NAMI Family Support Group, Family-to-Family, and NAMI Family & Friends Facilitator, joins today's conversation. Sara holds a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management and Leadership from Walden University and a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from Northeastern Illinois University. Sara brings lived experience working in early childhood education at Headstart and as a mother of two, a lifelong Christian, and passionate mental health and social justice advocate to the conversation.
Sara comes from a varied Protestant Christian faith background. While her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and her mom was raised Methodist, she spent her earliest years attending a United Church of Christ congregation. In elementary school, her family began attending a born-again Christian church. When she was 7, her father was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma.
"I know these folks by name. Dad became so sick, and they took me to school, brought us food - we didn't feel alone. I had lots of uncle, aunt, and grandparent figures. At age 8, I could call any of them. I felt very loved, and so did my parents." Years later, her family became homeless following a house fire. The same people ensured they had clothing and food for a year and a half.
"This congregation–more traditional, born-again, and conservative–was our extended family. All I remember was generosity, kindness, and sharing. As an adult, I have struggled to find my home church."
Many backgrounds go into her family's spiritual genetic makeup. Her husband, Sheldon, who is African American, was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. His father is a Baptist pastor whose church can be conservative on some things but emphasizes grassroots movements and social and civil rights from the pulpit. Despite some traditional things about Sara's parents, her family was probably the only liberal people in the pews of their congregation in a relatively conservative area.
Sara became a mom at 20. "My experience was a little non-traditional. I had an unplanned pregnancy in college, and I had to think about my choices. After a couple of weeks of prayer and thought, I made a choice and talked to my family. I was able to make a choice because my mom was there, and I had resources. So I chose to keep and raise my child."
My twenties were difficult, she says. "I was juggling a degree while learning how to be a mom." There was an eight-year gap between her daughter and her son. Sara waited until life was "a little bit calmer" to marry Sheldon. "My daughter was the flower girl walking down the aisle–a little non-traditional given my background, but that was my choice. Though I never dreamt of or planned for marriage or being a housewife or parent, I've been pleased with motherhood."
Sara learned about NAMI six years ago when a University of Chicago treatment team diagnosed her daughter with Bipolar I and gave her family information on NAMI KDK. It was then Sara learned that NAMI provides free mental health care support services, education, and mental health advocacy. Sara and Sheldon began attending a Family-to-Family Course and Family Support Groups.
"I'm going to be honest; I came from a lot of privilege. As someone whose husband works at UIC, where some of the best doctors are on your treatment team, it wasn't until my daughter aged out at age 26 that I personally saw barriers to care."
At 26, her daughter was triggered by losing the treatment team and talk therapy she had relied on. She began "cycling in and out of the hospital" for mental health care treatment. Transitioning off UIC-covered health insurance to Medicaid meant facing a steep learning curve and navigating a state system they had never needed to before. As COVID strained all healthcare sectors and providers, they searched for talk therapy and a medication prescriber.
"It was really difficult for me to watch as everything started to fall apart" for her daughter, who she had seen achieve recovery. Unable to find talk therapy for a whole year, Sara and Sheldon paid for nearly a year out of pocket. "We were privileged to come up with the resources to afford that–not everyone can. Still, I don't want to understate that this is one of the hardest things I've ever experienced."
"When I'm in a very really sad place, I've been able to have a lot of peace because prayer is really helpful for me," Sara says.
"When I'm sitting in ERs for 7 or 8 hours with my child who is in psychosis–yeah, I pray. Conversations I can't have with everyone? I have with my God. And, so, my faith has sustained me. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't believe in a loving God."
"As I've aged, I have slowly become what I call 'liberal Christian.' Still, I consider myself to be someone in the middle when we talk about Christians and atheists. I believe in God, Jesus, Holy Spirit…and Heaven. Jesus befriends outcasts, women, the poor, children, and even tax collectors. Jesus pressed for social and economic justice–and paid the ultimate price through execution. I believe in free choice. I had an unplanned pregnancy and believe every woman should have a choice over their body; I support contraception which not all Christians do. Everyone has the right to choose who they love."
"I'm in an interracial marriage, and it wasn't that long ago that it was considered unnatural or illegal. I find the ugliness shared in God's name repulsive. I truly believe God loves everyone. God has given us free choice; the only person we are accountable to is Him or They or Her–it is our own personal relationship. We have to make choices based on our own belief system."
"While we're attracted to 'cerebral' congregations more attuned to our social justice ideals, they seem to lack the charismatic joy and praise Sheldon and I both miss. We haven't found a congregation that strategizes how to make the world a better place through social movements AND has the joy, peace, praise, community, and self-sacrifice from the church I came up in. So, as an adult, I'm still seeking that religious home."
"I have been given a great life. I need and want to walk this life with purpose and the knowledge that I am to be a good person here. Not to have a laissez-faire approach, but I think how I make peace is being comfortable saying, 'I just don't know.' I will just do the best I can. And God will tell me when I arrive."
"Still, I'll have thoughts or opinions that I think are judgy. So I try to hold myself accountable. Luckily, I'm married to someone who feels very similarly. We try to navigate the world where we believe we are all God's children." This makes Sara emphasize the need for mental health resources to be genuinely available to everyone. The few services accessible regardless of insurance and income have wait lists that are far too long.
"If we're silent about our stories, individuals, families–our communities as a whole–won't know how hard it is. So one reason I share the good, the bad and the ugly of our story, with my daughter's permission, of course, is to cut through that stigma."
NAMI KDK helps fill the mental health resource gap in Illinois's Kane-south, DeKalb, and Kendall counties. We provide free support groups, education, a resource guide, advocacy opportunities, and community presentations. We recruit staff and interns that look like and represent our community. NAMI KDK has support groups for those experiencing symptoms (Connections) and those who support those experiencing symptoms (Family and Loved Ones). We have Spanish-speaking Connection and Family support groups and programs and support groups specifically for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.
Check out Sara Gray's Story and Practicing Self-Care When Your Adult Child is Diagnosed With Serious Mental Illness to learn more about Sara's journey.
The views and opinions expressed in these conversations are those of the guests and host and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of NAMI KDK, Interfaith America, or any entities they represent or with which they are associated.