This might shake the table, in fact I hope it does because this is a conversation that we need to have. In this good year of 2020 there needs to be an intersection of black Christianity and mental health awareness, it’s long over due.
My Mental Health Journey and Observation
I grew up in a Christian household, southern and black. This means that church was a mandate, not an option. Every service, every revival, every bible study, even the youth choir rehearsals when I have no true singing ability; I was present. Somewhere around my junior or senior year of high school, my mom gave those magical words: “You can go, if you want to.” The freedom in the ability to choose something for myself was liberating. I am very grateful for my religious roots but somewhere along the way my connection to the church became one of habit and obligation. I went to church see my friends, half the time never even making it into the actual sanctuary. Like many people who grew up heavy in the church, we waver and eventually have that prodigal son experience.
The thing no one prepares you for in adulthood is that pivotal point when you began to unpack things be it trauma or characteristics to truly understand how you are as a person to initiate growth. We get tired of the same things, yielding the same results. Unpacking emotional luggage (carry on and checked bags because I was a mess) inevitably caused me to to become more conscious of my mental health . I learned that you can’t heal when you don’t acknowledge the pain. Most importantly from introspection, I realized that a lot of things that I passed off as “that’s just my personality” were in fact the tell tale signs of anxiety and depression. Yes! The happy, larger than life, outspoken, confident person that I am battled anxiety and depression on a daily basis. And I still, do. It’s important to note that mental health has a wide range of diseases, disorders illnesses and it does not look the same for everyone. For me, procrastination and avoidance was often anxiety about bigger issues. The ability to sleep for 10 plus hours, wake up to pee and then sleep for another five was more than exhaustion…it was depression (with a little bit of vicarious trauma from my work in child advocacy). I had to do the work to learn my triggers, and then figure out how to show up for myself everyday through gut wrenching transparency and vulnerability. And it’s so very hard to do. It’s more than affirmations. It’s more than mantras. It’s more than the feng shui of your space. And yes, Christians…it’s more than just prayer.
What I noticed in my mental health journey is that “The Black Church” still isn’t ready to fully talk about depression or other aspects of mental health. In my experience its rarely acknowledged. The few people that were “open” about it, were simultaneously elusive about their mental breakdowns, use of Prozac and weekly couch sessions. They had so much shame in the journey it took for them to become the best versions of themselves because the church pushed the narrative that all you need in life is Jesus. And that’s wrong. Looking back at some of the members in the church I grew up in, there were multiple incidents were the solution was prayer or the person was thought to have been possessed when these were probably genuine mental health issues on full display. Depression in particular, was considered “a spirit” and we were often told to just pray about it or it’s just a state of mind. And of course that classic line from so many black parents: you have nothing to be depressed about. (Go depress them dishes, was familiar to far too many people on Twitter). Somehow there’s a misconception especially within the [older, Christian] black community that these things are a luxury of the wealthy & privileged. I’ve heard countless folks within the black community from parents to faith leaders alike refer to therapy as “something for white people”. I’ve witnessed people from my childhood make posts on social media alluding suicide and the responses from church members were often “I’m praying for you.” People are dying and the best solution we have is prayer?
We Prayed. Now What?
Now, before you get twisted into a pretzel I do believe in the power of earnest prayers and I do believe that through prayer things change. However, as the good book says faith [without works] is dead therefore prayer alone is not effective in combating life’s stumbling blocks, hurdles, or struggles. In conclusion: we can have Jesus and a mental health therapist too. We can shift the narrative, especially within the church and here’s how:
1. Drop the stigma: Ordinarily, being proactive in varying aspects of your health is praised. If a person is making physical changes to prolong their life or attending couples therapy to save a marriage those are met with open arms. The same should be happening with out mental health as well. In order to do this, we have to remove the stigmas and the default reckless labeling of those who seek help. In 2014, almost 6.8 million black people had a diagnosable mental illness within the past year. People who rely on their religion and it’s leadership for spiritual guidance often turn to the church to combat issues. Through the earnest removal of these stigmas, when people are confident in whom they can confide, they are more likely to confront their struggles head-on instead of alone.
2. Start the conversation: Host an open forum for church and community members alike. Within the safety of this forum, attendees should be able to speak freely about their struggles, concerns and pinpoint potential solutions.
3. Education and Awareness: 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness. Contrary to what we may have been taught through the lenses of Christianity, mental health is not a “spirit”, it can’t be treated through prayer alone & it requires a lot of temporary discomfort for the greater good. Pastors and leaders (especially youth leaders) should work with national, state or local mental health organizations such as Black Mental Health Alliance to become educated on racial disparities and signs of mental illness to be cultural competent allies. This should be in addition to addressing the immediate needs to make mental health services accessible to everyone. Use any available opportunity (conferences, outreach events, etc) to educate people on mental health and the resources available to them.
4. Faith & Work: In order to heal, it’s important to appropriately identify traumas, triggers and their accompanying emotions in a healthy environment. As faith leaders, encourage your congregation to be their best selves. This includes utilizing whatever solutions suggested by a doctor whether it’s prescribing antidepressants or counseling. Prayer in addition to tangible, physical help will aide in the healing process.
5. Hire a Mental Health Professional: What better way to show support and encourage mental health than having a licensed professional and advocate as apart of the church staff? While religious people seek spiritual guidance, they may not always want or need a spiritual response to their situations. A mental health profession can bridge that gap.
It’s time to be our best selves, in every area of your lives! I encourage you all to champion change within your faith groups and religious communities by helping get the conversation going!
Help is Just a Click Away
If you are struggling with suicide, depression, anxiety or any other mental health illness, you are not alone. Help is available by texting the Crisis Text Line or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. To connect with a therapist, the following organizations are available: National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation and Therapy For Black Girls.