Why Many Black Pastors and Their Congregations Are Either Uninformed or in Denial about the Reality of Mental Illness

(FLORIDA COURIER FILES)
(FLORIDA COURIER FILES)

Dr. Reba Haley often stands in the pulpit of her Tampa area church and delivers a message that most Black pastors won’t touch: If you’re dealing with a mental health issue, seek professional help.

Haley is founder and CEO of The Hope Center for Living, a counseling center in Riverview. It’s next door to Covenant Family Church, the ministry she pastors with her husband.

An ordained minister and a psychologist, Haley is among a small but growing number of Black pastors who are trying to change the way mental illness is perceived by the African-American church.

Prayer alone
Last year, LifeWay Research released a survey showing that one-third of Americans and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that nearly 60 million Americans experience a mental health condition every year and that mental illness affects one in four adults and one in 10 children in the U.S. That one in four number is the same rate for African-Americans.

Despite those numbers, it’s still a taboo subject, especially in the Black church.

“What I have seen is the church has not addressed the mental health issue from a clinical aspect and has communicated that parishioners pray about it. So that is the message that is being conveyed to parishioners from the pulpit,’’ explained Haley.

Lack of knowledge
“Perhaps their lack of clinical knowledge or awareness on mental health issues or a lack of knowledge of resources to address mental health issues could be their reasons for not addressing the issue, because the Bible says, ‘My people are destroyed for the lack of knowledge.’”

She continued, “If I don’t have the knowledge, I can’t convey the knowledge. If I don’t really understand mental health and depression and bipolar and schizophrenia, then I really can’t convey it. I can’t give you something I don’t have.’’

Haley, who is planning a mental health in-training session in Tampa in June for all ministers and church leaders and recently wrote a book on the subject, estimates that 90 percent of pastors at predominantly Black churches don’t broach the subject of mental health with their members.

“The churches can do more training from the pulpit, more sermons on how to handle depression, how hope to cope with stress, how to resolve conflict, how to minimize anger, how to do breathing exercises for relaxation,’’ she told the Florida Courier.

‘It’s not the devil’
Haley believes in exercising all of God’s spiritual gifts in ministry. She does “speak in tongues,’’ practices “laying on of hands’’ and administers oil on the foreheads of her parishioners. But she says when it comes to mental illness, too many pastors want to solely focus on the spiritual.

If someone is hearing voices, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a demonic spirit, she noted. “The church’s perspective is if you hear voices, that’s the devil, so we’re going to cast the devil out of you and not address the mental health issue.

“What we hear in ministry is that behavior is directly tied to a demonic force so they (ministers) move into a spiritual mode of deliverance.

“It’s not the devil. This is people’s mental health and they have a chemical imbalance in their brain,” she offered.

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Source: Florida Courier | JENISE GRIFFIN MORGAN

Jenise Griffin Morgan, senior editor of the Florida Courier, is a 2013-2014 fellow for the Rosalyn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.

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