Black churches enlist mental health pros to support community

Two congregants expressed suicidal thoughts to Carl Lucas, pastor at God First Church in northern St. Louis County. "The pandemic has definitely put us in a place where we're looking for answers and looking for other avenues to help our members," he said.

(Kaiser Health News)Wilma Mayfield used to visit a senior center in Durham, North Carolina, four days a week and attend Lincoln Memorial Baptist Church on Sundays, a ritual she has maintained for nearly half a century. But over the past 10 months, she's seen only the inside of her home, the grocery store and the pharmacy. Most of her days are spent 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 presentation on mental health during the pandemic, she decided to tune in.
The hourlong discussion covered Covid's disproportionate toll on communities of color, rising rates of depression and anxiety, and the trauma caused by police killings of Black Americans. What stuck with Mayfield were the tools to improve her own mental health.
"They said to get up and get out," she said. "So I did."
The next morning, Mayfield, 67, got into her car and drove around town, listening to 103.9 gospel radio and noting new businesses that had opened and old ones that had closed. She felt so energized that she bought chicken, squash and greens, and began her Thanksgiving cooking early.
"It was wonderful," she said. "The stuff that lady talked about (in the presentation), it opened up doors for me."
As Black people face an onslaught of grief, stress and isolation triggered by a devastating pandemic and repeated instances of racial injustice, churches play a crucial role in addressing the mental health of their members and the greater community. Religious institutions have long been havens for emotional support. But faith leaders say the challenges of this year have catapulted mental health efforts to the forefront of their mission.
Some are preaching about mental health from the pulpit for the first time. Others are inviting mental health professionals to speak to their congregations, undergoing mental health training themselves or adding more therapists to the church staff.
Keon Gerow, senior pastor at Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia, talks openly about mental health ― from the pulpit and one-on-one with his congregants.
"Covid undoubtedly has escalated this conversation in great ways," said Keon Gerow, senior pastor at Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia. "It has forced Black churches — some of which have been older, traditional and did not want to have this conversation — to actually now have this conversation in a very real way."
At Lincoln Memorial Baptist, leaders who organized the virtual presentation with the psychologist knew that people like Mayfield were struggling but might be reluctant to seek help. They thought members might be more open to sensitive discussions if they took place in a safe, comfortable setting like church.
It's a trend that psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, who gave the presentation, has noticed for years.
Through her nonprofit organization, the AAKOMA Project, Breland-Noble and her colleagues often speak to church groups about depression, recognizing the church setting as one of the best ways to reach a diverse segment of the Black community and raise mental health awareness.
This year, the AAKOMA Project has received clergy requests that are increasingly urgent, asking to focus on coping skills and tools people can use immediately, Breland-Noble said.
"After George Floyd's death, it became: 'Please talk to us about exposure to racial trauma and how we can help congregations deal with this,'" she said. "'Because this is a lot.'"
Across the country, mental health needs are soaring. And Black Americans are experiencing significant strain: A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer found 15% of non-Hispanic Black adults had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days and 18% had started or increased their use of substances to cope with pandemic-related stress.
Yet national data shows Blacks are less likely to receive mental health treatment than the overall population. A memo released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration this spring lists engaging faith leaders as one way to close this gap.
The Potter's House in Dallas has been trying to do that for years. A megachurch with more than 30,000 members, it runs a counseling center with eight licensed clinicians, open to congregants and the local community to receive counseling at no cost, though donations are accepted.
Since the pandemic began, the center has seen a 30% increase in monthly appointments compared with previous years, said center director Natasha Stewart. During the summer, when protests over race and policing were at their height, more Black men came to therapy for the first time, she said.
Recently, there has been a surge in families seeking services. Staying home together has brought up conflicts previously ignored, Stewart said.
"Before, people had ways to escape," she said, referring to work or school. "With some of those escapes not available any