Amid COVID and Racial Unrest, Black Church buildings Put Religion in Psychological Well being Care
By Aneri Pattani, Kaiser Health News
Wilma Mayfield attended a senior citizen center in Durham, North Carolina four days a week and attended Lincoln Memorial Baptist Church on Sundays, a ritual she has entertained for nearly half a century. But for the past 10 months she has only seen the inside of her home, grocery store and pharmacy. She spends most of her days worrying about COVID-19 and watching TV.
It’s isolating, but she doesn’t talk about it much.
When Mayfield’s Church invited a psychologist to give a virtual mental health presentation during the pandemic, she decided to tune in.
The hour-long discussion looked at the disproportionate toll COVID has taken on color communities, the rising rate of depression and anxiety, and the trauma caused by the police murder of black Americans. What stayed with Mayfield were the tools to improve her own sanity.
“They said to get up and get out,” she said. “So I did.”
The next morning, 67-year-old Mayfield got in her car and drove around town listening to 103.9 gospel radio and noticing new stores that had opened and old ones that had closed. She felt so aroused that she bought chicken, pumpkin, and vegetables and started Thanksgiving cooking early.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “The stuff the lady was talking about [in the presentation], it opened doors for me. “
With blacks facing an onslaught of grief, stress and isolation triggered by a devastating pandemic and repeated incidents of racial injustice, churches play a vital role in combating the mental health of their members and the wider community. Religious institutions have long been havens for emotional support. But faith leaders say this year’s challenges have catapulted mental health efforts to the forefront of their mission.
Some are preaching mental health for the first time from the pulpit. Others invite mental health professionals to speak to their communities, train themselves mentally, or add other therapists to church staff.
“COVID has undoubtedly escalated this conversation in a great way,” said Keon Gerow, senior pastor of the Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia, now actually having this conversation in a very real way. “
At Lincoln Memorial Baptist, executives who organized the virtual presentation with the psychologist knew that people like Mayfield had problems but might be reluctant to seek help. They thought members could be more open to sensitive discussions if they were held in a safe and comfortable environment like church.
Psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, who gave the presentation, has noticed this trend for years.
Through their nonprofit, the AAKOMA project, Breland-Noble and her colleagues often speak to church groups about depression and recognize this as one of the best ways to reach out to a diverse segment of the black community and raise awareness about mental health.
This year, the AAKOMA project has received increasingly urgent requests from clergy to focus on coping skills and tools that people can use right away, Breland-Noble said.
“After the death of George Floyd, it was, ‘Please speak to us about exposure to racial trauma and how we can help communities deal with it,'” she said. “Because that’s a lot.”
Mental health needs are increasing across the country. And black Americans face significant stress: a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer found that 15% of non-Hispanic black adults had seriously considered suicide and 18% with using it in the past 30 days started using or increased substances coping with pandemic stress.
However, national data show that blacks are less likely to receive mental health treatment than the general population. A memo released this spring by the Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration listed committed faith leaders as one way to fill that void.
Potter’s House in Dallas has tried this for years. As a mega-church with more than 30,000 members, it runs a counseling center with eight licensed clinicians, which is open to parishioners and the local community for free advice, although donations are accepted.
Since the pandemic began, monthly appointments at the center have increased 30% over previous years, said the center’s director Natasha Stewart. During the summer, when the anti-race and police protests were at their height, more black men came to therapy for the first time, she said.
Recently there has been an increase in families looking for services. Staying home together has created conflict that was previously ignored, Stewart said.
“People used to have opportunities to escape,” she said, referring to work or school. “With some of these escapes no longer available, counseling has become a more viable option.”
To meet growing demand, Stewart is adding a new consultant position for the first time in eight years.
In smaller churches, where funding for a counseling service is unrealistic, clergymen turn to ward members instead to meet growing mental health needs.
At the Catalyst Church, a member with a background in crisis management has started having monthly COVID conversations online. A deacon has shared his or her own experiences with therapy to encourage others to do the same. And Gerow, the older pastor, speaks openly about mental health.
Gerow recognizes his power as a pastor and hopes that his words will help parishioners find the help they need on Sunday mornings and in one-on-one meetings. This could reduce substance use and gun violence in the community, he said. Perhaps it would even reduce the number of mental health crises that lead to police involvement, such as the death in October of Walter Wallace Jr., whose family said he was experiencing mental health problems when the Philadelphia police force him shot.
“If people had the right tools, they could deal with their grief and stress in different ways,” said Gerow. “Prayer alone is not always enough.”
Laverne Williams recognized this as early as the 1990s. She believed prayer was mighty, but as an employee of the New Jersey Mental Health Association, she knew there was a need for treatment too.
When she heard pastors tell people they could pray away mental illness or use blessed oil to cure symptoms of schizophrenia, she worried. And she knew that many people of color did not see skilled workers, often because of cost, transport, stigmatization and mistrust barriers in relation to the medical system.
To resolve this separation, Williams created a video and PowerPoint presentation and attempted to educate faith leaders.
At first, many clergymen turned her away. People thought finding mental health treatment meant their beliefs weren’t strong enough, Williams said.
But over time, some members of the clergy have realized that the two can coexist, Williams said, adding that being a deacon herself has helped her gain her trust. This year alone, she has trained 20 religious leaders on mental health issues.
A program run by the Greater St. Louis Behavioral Health Network takes a similar approach. The Bridges to Care and Recovery program trains faith leaders in a 20-hour course on mental health first aid, suicide prevention, substance use and more.
The training builds on the work faith leaders are already doing to support their communities, said Rose Jackson-Beavers, senior program manager. In addition to tools of faith and prayer, clergymen can now offer resources, education, awareness, and refer people to professional therapists on the network.
As of 2015, the program has trained 261 people from 78 churches, Jackson-Beavers said.
Among them is Carl Lucas, pastor of God First Church in northern St. Louis County, who graduated this July – just in time, according to him.
Since the pandemic began, he has met two community members who have expressed thoughts of suicide. In one case, community leaders referred the person to counseling and tracked them down to make sure they attended therapy sessions. In the other, the main concern was isolation so the person was paired with members of the Church who could regularly touch the base, Lucas said.
“The pandemic has definitely put us in a place where we are looking for answers and other ways to help our members,” he said. “It opened our eyes to the reality of mental health needs.”
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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.