Tamara Warren Chinyani, an instructor with the “Mental Health First Aid” program, led a session at an African-American church in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 2, 2014, about signs and symptoms of mental illness. Photo courtesy of Tamara Warren Chinyani

Tamara Warren Chinyani, an instructor with the “Mental Health First Aid” program, led a session at an African-American church in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 2, 2014, about signs and symptoms of mental illness. Photo courtesy of Tamara Warren Chinyani


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The death of beloved comedian Robin Williams has heightened awareness of suicide and its relationship to mental health problems. But many African-American churches quietly began educating members on the issue well before the Oscar winner’s death.

“A lot of times in the past, African-Americans have viewed severe depression and other mental illnesses as indicating a spiritual weakness,” said Tamara Warren Chinyani, an instructor with the “Mental Health First Aid” program. “We’re changing that paradigm around.”

The National Council for Behavioral Health introduced the program in the U.S. in 2008, with the goal of helping people learn how to spot signs and symptoms of mental illness. The program began its focus on African-American churches this year.

African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to report instances of serious psychological stress, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. And while more white teens commit suicide than their black counterparts, more African-American teens (8.3 percent) attempted suicide than their white peers (6.2 percent).

Some of the people leading the effort to build awareness about mental illness have seen its most tragic consequences up close.

Bishop William Young and his wife, Pastor Dianne Young, co-founded the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference about a decade ago after a member of their Memphis, Tenn., congregation shot and killed herself under a large cross on the church grounds. Photo courtesy of The Healing Center

Bishop William Young and his wife, Pastor Dianne Young, co-founded the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference about a decade ago after a member of their Memphis, Tenn., congregation shot and killed herself under a large cross on the church grounds. Photo courtesy of The Healing Center


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Bishop William Young and his wife, Pastor Dianne Young, co-founded the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference about a decade ago after a member of their Memphis, Tenn., congregation shot and killed herself under a large cross on the church grounds. Fifty attended the first biennial meeting and about 500 attended the 2013 gathering, he said.

“We’ve been silent on issues that have been right before us all the time,” said William Young. “Because of our mainly not having knowledge of these different types of issues we have avoided it.”

In addition to the conference, the couple started “Emotional Fitness Centers” at 10 churches in Tennessee, in hopes they will increase access to services and reduce the stigma associated with therapeutic care.

“People will come to the church when they won’t go to a mental health center,” said the bishop, who attended a July launch of a broader new initiative called the Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership.

Jim Haller, left and Sam Smith talk to one another during a Mental Health First Aid gathering that teaches ALGEE: Assess for risk, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance, Encourage professional help, Encourage self-help. Photo courtesy of National Council for Behavioral Health

Jim Haller, left and Sam Smith talk to one another during a Mental Health First Aid gathering that teaches ALGEE: Assess for risk, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance, Encourage professional help, Encourage self-help. Photo courtesy of National Council for Behavioral Health


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Dianne Young, the centers’ director, said 722 people were screened during the most recent fiscal year and 300 followed through with the plans they were given, some of which included hospitalization.

In Texas, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health will begin an $850,000 grant program in October that will help 10 African-American churches educate congregants about mental health for the next three years.

Program Officer Vicky Coffee-Fletcher said the foundation received an “overwhelming response” to the grant announcement.

“To an increasing degree, African-American faith-based leaders are no longer content with being behind the curve on mental health issues,” she said. “Pastors are excited about the chance to spread awareness about mental health in a way that capitalizes on their strengths as standard bearers in the community.”

Experts say many African-Americans have long been hesitant to pursue medical and mental assistance because of fears they may be discriminated against and because of recollections of notorious experiments on unsuspecting black men in the mid-1900s.

Rev. Frankey Grayton

The Rev. Frankey Grayton of Washington, D.C., said it’s time for congregants and clergy to acknowledge their need to learn more about mental health and, when necessary, seek help. Photo courtesy of Edgewood Baptist Church


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But the Rev. Frankey Grayton of Edgewood Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which hosted Warren Chinyani’s recent training session, said it’s time for congregants and clergy to acknowledge their need to learn more and, when necessary, seek help.

“Quite frankly, we felt unprepared,” said Grayton, who learned of the training from another pastor who had participated. “But I don’t think that we as a community can ignore it.”

Now, his congregation is developing an action plan, which will range from offering in-house counseling to the bereaved, divorced and unemployed to determining when they need to call 911 or otherwise seek professional help.

Before she started working directly with congregations, Warren Chinyani trained about 100 clergy and lay people in two sessions last year sponsored by the Maryland affiliate of Volunteers of America.

The consultant, who used to attend a church in Michigan where a fellow member committed suicide about a decade ago, said she hopes more African-American congregations will step up to a greater role on mental illness, just as many have recently on HIV/AIDS where they’ve started clinics, health fairs and counseling.

As she shows videos of people who have recovered and supervises role-playing exercises to foster openness about mental health, she hopes the training will become as common as CPR.

“We want just as many people who are certified in CPR to become knowledgeable and equipped with the tools and skills necessary to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” she said.

YS/MG END BANKS

8 Comments

  1. Why does it take the suicide of a famous entertainer, or anyone of fame, to make us aware that we ignore mental health in our society? This is just like the “1%” thinking they have more rights than middle class and poor people, thinking they have the right to run the nation only for their continuing greater economic advantage.

    The Republicans complain about the Affordable Care Act. From the beginning, they have tried to attach their racial bigotry to it by nicknaming it “Obamacare.” That’s shorthand for “it’s black care,” and they’re inferring the “N” word in that nickname in spite of the fact that Obama is only half black.

    The medical insurance companies, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies, the medical industry altogether, are robbing us blind. How many doctors are also big share holders in health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies? You wouldn’t remain conscious if you learned that selfish, greedy influence.

    Consider the struggling straits to which the masses of our people are consigned by the selfish greed of the wealthy and those who are trying too climb up that ladder of selfish, greedy wealth behind them.

    We should already have efficient universal health care, and yet the selfish, greedy Republicans and some of their Democrat cohorts refuse to do any governing at all except wage foreign wars, kill other needy people, using the lives and bodies and minds of our ordinary people just like guns and tanks and planes and bombs and other materiel of warfare.

    What kind of religion is that? What kind of morals are those? What kind of ethics are those? It is nothing but selfish greed in phony disguise, the wealthy using everyone else to make them wealthier and protect them.

  2. What about the untold numbers of ordinary people who are driven to suicide by mental and material problems every day?

    What’s new about the outrage of neglected conditions that drive people into mental illness and suicide?

    What’s new about the ways we ignore all kinds of mental illness when it fills our media daily–even when it fills the halls of all levels of our government? We always ignore it until someone famous commits suicide, or someone who is mentally ill kills or maims someone else.

  3. Chaplain Martin

    Fine coverage by Adelle Banks. Good to learn of the work of Mental Health First Aid and the work of the Black Church pastors. I hope that many of our Black brothers and sisters will avail themselves to the Clinical Pastoral Education offered at major hospitals and other places. Most seminaries and religious education institution would know of such training.

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