As Tyler churches aim to address mental health issues among their congregations more effectively, black churches are no exception.

While some research suggests stigma in predominantly black churches is more profound than other places of worship, the tide may be turning. Programs are springing up in black churches across the country, and pastors here are attempting to educate their congregations.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 85 percent of African Americans are religious or fairly religious, highlighting the need for resources to be available at their places of worship.

The black church has represented the go-to place for not only spiritual, but also economic, social and emotional guidance.

Carolyn Harvey, program manager of UT Health Northeast's Behavioral Health Integration Project, said stigma associated with mental illness in the black community is similar to stigma attached to cancer decades ago. No one talked about it, as there was shame. She's been working to integrate mental health screenings with medical care, as well as educate religious communities.

"Every church should have a mental health first aid class," she said. "Not that anybody's sick at their church, but in case that happens, now they know how to respond. … We need to be prepared and know how to help somebody."

The prevalence of mental illness in African Americans is similar to that of other communities.

However, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, blacks are 20 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to report serious psychological distress.

African Americans also are less likely to receive an accurate diagnosis than their white counterparts, National Alliance on Mental Illness research shows. This may stem from the fact that mental health research is based on white populations, which may not consider the beliefs, traditions, and value systems of other racial groups, according to the APA.

 

KEVIN'S JOURNEY

When New Days Community Church pastor Reginald Garrett's son, Kevin, died 21 years ago in Houston, it marked the end of a tumultuous life.

"It didn't shock me," Garrett said. "It hurt, but it did not shock me."

Throughout Kevin's life, his behavioral problems baffled his parents. The Garretts, who lived in Houston, visited a psychologist to find what troubled their son. They speculated that he might have been suffering from a mental illness. Something just wasn't right but he never received a formal diagnosis before his death.

At 16, Kevin moved to California with aspirations of becoming a rap artist. He found trouble there, landing himself in a juvenile detention center. He moved back home.

"When someone would say, ‘that's just a bad boy,' I knew better than that," Garrett said.

He reached out to others, who advised him to "firm up" on his son.

"We did like most African Americans," Garrett said. "We spanked, we withheld privileges, we withheld toys, whatever it took. But it never seemed to work."

The family left Houston, hoping a move to a smaller city would reduce Kevin's chances of finding trouble. However, he still found it in Tyler.

"Geography doesn't help that situation," he said. "Unless you get to the basis of that situation, you never get it straight."

By 19, Kevin was married and had a son. When his life unraveled, Garrett blamed himself, feeling he should have been more supportive of his musical dreams.

He still doesn't know the circumstances surrounding his son's death.

"That's part of my denial, I think," he said. "I never got the details to it."

He said the family rarely talked about Kevin's death or about a possible mental illness.

"There was no need in talking to people individually because people don't understand when you talk about mental illness," Garrett said. "African Americans run from mental illness. … They see it as negative. They see it as something to shy away from."

He believes the stigma stems from negative perceptions about mental illness, such as being institutionalized. He said stigma keeps people silent, which prevents them from getting help.

"When there's no help, you internalize it," he said.

In the church, he said "church talk," steeped in the cultural traditions, might also prevent some from getting appropriate care.

"There's truth in ‘God is able,'" Garrett said. "There's truth in ‘God can make a way.' He can make a way but what we have to tell them is that's only step one. All of that is true but the same God wants us to utilize the resources that he's given us through the power of other people, the power of other minds."

 

‘WE CALLED IT SOMETHING ELSE'

Darryl Bowdre, pastor of South Central Church of Christ, has pastored for 39 years. He comes from a tradition of pastorship, following in his father and grandfather's footsteps.

In his ministry, he said he's witnessed, acknowledged and responded to those coping with mental health issues.

"I don't agree that the black church doesn't deal with it," Bowdre said. "It's all we deal with. If anything, I think we've probably dealt with it better than others."

"We called it something else, but we've always dealt with it because black folk have suffered ever since they've been here."

Bowdre asserts that the conversation about mental illness has been handled in a unique way. People who had mental illness in the black community were described as having "colorful" personalities, but accepted nonetheless. But there has been little education about how people are affected by mental illness.

"We called everything ‘crazy' that we didn't understand," Bowdre said. "When I was growing up and when grandma would start acting different and would forget folks' names, we thought grandma had lost her mind. We didn't know anything about Alzheimer's."

Bowdre said he recognizes that some people are reluctant to admit they have a mental health issue or don't seek treatment because of their religious beliefs —beliefs that may not leave room for imperfections. As pointed out by religious leaders and researchers, acknowledging a mental illness means admitting a moral failing or spiritual weakness.

"We preach a perfect doctrine," Bowdre said. "We talk about a perfect savior, though Jesus himself knows our humanness in this earthly setting here. In the church people strive for a spiritual goal."

For example, when Bowdre visited a relative's wife who was mentally ill and hospitalized, she became incensed by his presence. He said it was because he represented the church.

"The minute she saw me, she flipped because I was a reminder to her that she had failed at something," he said. "It took a psychologist to help me understand that."

Bowdre also recognizes that most pastors' mental health training is limited, but they try. He said he's had candid conversations from the pulpit about taking medications if needed, and being compassionate to those who have a mental illness.

"It's part of my ministry," Bowdre said. "I don't necessarily call it that. I know it's that. I'll take them as far as I've been trained to recognize things, which is very limited, but past my point, I direct them to another bridge, be it an agency or a professional counselor."

 

BREAKING BARRIERS

Garrett attended the Peace of Mind Tyler conference last month, which addressed the church's role in dealing with mental illness. He also has received training through The Grace Alliance; a resource to teach ministers how to get people the help they need.

"When I heard about this conference, I thought to myself, ‘I want to make a difference somehow or another,'" Garrett said. "This is only step one. This is only the very beginning."

Speaking about mental health care in his community and ensuring that pastors get the help they need aren't the only causes Garrett has embraced.

Even with awareness, Garrett said mental health care won't be as accessible to the most vulnerable populations.

"As complicated as mental health is, I'm afraid that unless you have the money, unless you have the health insurance, unless you have the political contacts, you're going to be swept aside and nothing's going to be done for poor people," he said.

Being proactive is better, he said, than addressing it later when people are in legal trouble. The criminal justice system, as numerous experts have pointed out, is oftentimes a default mental health system.

"There's no money for drugs," Garrett said. "There's no money for education, but we can build a new jail to lock somebody up. But we don't do anything to stop them from getting there in the first place."

Bowdre agrees.

"I think maybe we need to do more proactive things to encourage good mental health," he said. "We need to search out new ways because it touches all of our families — in our communities, not just our churches."

 

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