Black churches opening up about mental health

Sep 1, 2015

In many African American communities, mental health issues have a history of being undertreated and underdiagnosed. According to the federal government’s Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, but less likely to seek treatment.

This is part three of a three-part series addressing mental health care within black communities.

Hands are clapping, children are bobbing their heads and most of the elders are wearing their finest hats and polished shoes at the New Revelation Community Church. Reverend Donna Allen leads a sermon.

“And this notion of law enforcement interacting with people with lethal force? Jesus would cry out, ‘I am the Prince of Peace and I tell you, no justice, no peace, no justice!’”

Credit Alyssa Kapnik Samuel

This church seems to make a lot happen with very little. In fact it doesn’t actually have its own building yet. Today’s service is being held in a back room of the Omega House, a black fraternity that rents space to the church.

Some of the churchgoers are regulars and some are here for the first time. If you look closely, when the singing starts, you can see streaks of tears on people’s cheeks.  Reverend Donna Allen says it’s a place to let go, and sometimes, with that letting go comes a lot of emotion.

“They’ll describe being very depressed, like I don’t want to go on, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to live anymore,” says Allen. “They’re really describing things that are mental health issues.”

So she hugs them, she visits their homes, she offers whatever she can.  Realizing it’s an opportunity for people to open up about very personal things that affect mental health, something  she says the black church has not always been so accepting of. Some traditional churches believe that prayer alone can pull people out of dark places, but Allen doesn’t think that’s always enough.

Credit Alyssa Kapnik Samuel

“I was in a service Friday and the preacher said the Apostle Paul was bipolar and was talking in pejorative terms,” she says. “The audience was laughing hysterically and I don’t think that preacher meant to do the level of harm they did, but it turns out I was sitting with someone that was diagnosed with bipolar and it was so harmful. They wanted to get out of of that church.”

In her church, Allen tries to bring mental health care more into the open.  She says that sharing her experiences can help people feel more comfortable talking about their own.

“I’m up front with them that I see a therapist,” she says. “I share with them that I’ve had periods of depression-- not saying that I’m going through what you’re going through but I at least can identify.”

But she wanted to do more.

Credit Alyssa Kapnik Samuel

At a community center in Oakland’s Eastmount Mall, about 12 people from Allen’s church have come to do a training. They want to get certified in how to be able to recognize and help someone who might be in a mental health crisis.  

Three teenagers, and the rest adults, are spending their Saturday learning how to recognize some symptoms of mental health trauma. The program is part of an effort by Alameda County to approach health care in black communities from a different angle.

It’s what Gigi Crowder, the Ethnic Services manager at Alameda County  Behavioural Health Care Services, calls “community defined strategies.”

Crowder works for the government agency that’s dedicated to providing help for mental health and substance abuse in Alameda County. These trainings are one of the ways the county is trying to focus on poorer populations, and the situations that may be unique to them.

Crowder says there are basic questions that need to be asked.

“What do you see when you see someone in your congregation who is struggling with mental health challenge?” Crowder asks. “What are the social determinate factors around poverty? Do they have a substance abuse issue? Is it child care, and is fear of losing their child and reporting it an issue?”

Crowder thinks less money should get spent on expert analysis and more on programs like the community training at the Eastmount Mall.  She believes these kinds of efforts put the power in the hands of the people who have their boots on the ground.

Back in the workshop, we’re learning about schizophrenia.  We’re divided into groups of three. Everyone has a role. And since one group was short a person, I participated.  I’m supposed to be experiencing a schizophrenic episode. A man is talking to me, asking me questions about my name, where I work, basic things. But at the same time a woman says distracting things through a funnel pointed at my ear.  “Don’t trust him!” she says. “He’s looking at you, why is he looking at you?”

I find it hard to concentrate as the voice gets more intense, “Why would he want to talk to you? He’s looking at you!”

It made me seem detached and uninterested, and that’s the idea. Not only to feel the frustration, but to notice how someone having an episode like this may be reacting in a conversation-- distant and confused.  

After the exercise I’m asked to stop recording while people share their personal experiences. Reverend Allen says in a time of crisis, the first instinct might be to call the police, especially if someone is having a psychotic episode. But she says, that’s not always a good idea, especially for African Americans.  

“Calling the police isn’t necessarily the first call that someone needs to make,” she says. “Often their commands and just the way they do their job, they escalate a situation. It leads people of color to some dire consequences, in terms of being killed, injured, or incarcerated as opposed to them getting the treatment that they need for their mental disorder.”

As an alternative, Allen lists other options, like a 24-hour crisis prevention hotline, and a suicide hotline number that she asks everyone to enter into their phones.

Alameda County has given 1.8 million dollars for programs like this one. Reverend Allen offers everyone here a $25 gift card for completing the training. But even with incentives like this, none of the other church groups Allen invited participated. Project facilitator Gigi Crowder says people need to step up.  

“Our community too has a lot of work to do,” Crowder says. “We got to stop being ok with pulling babies out of the water, and go upstream and figure out how they are getting there in the first place.”

Credit Alyssa Kapnik Samuel

At the New Revelation Community Church, the service starts as it always does, with song. Three teenage ushers stand in the aisles with their white gloved hands clasped in front of them.  Looking proud.  

Afterwards I run into Yvette Frazier, who I met at the health care training at the mall.  She says she got a lot out of the training.

“I think that it’s important to recognize that when someone is having some difficulties in church we don’t get scared and run away, regardless of whatever their disorders may be,” Frazier says.

New Revelations Community Church hopes to also take steps to be recognized as a Mental Health Friendly Congregation. It’s something Alameda County is also behind -- as churches complete the trainings, they are declared places that can offer support and connect people to resources to find help.

That’s something Yvette Frazier is proud of. Before she leaves service this Sunday, she pulls out her phone and shows me the emergency numbers she can call to get someone the help they need. 

This story is part of our series on mental health care in the black community. Click here to hear about dismantling the stigma around black mental health, click here for an interview with local psychiatrist Dr. Loma Flowers, and click here for our story about whether we need more black therapists.

This report was produced for the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.