Why Black Churches Need to Do Better with Mental Health Issues

JUL. 20, 2020

By Alicia Montgomery


One of the oldest, and at times, only, emotional outlet and support for Black women has been the church. According to the Pew Research Center, 91% of Black Americans say religion is somewhat or very important in their lives, and 79% identify as Christian. 
 
For me, faith has been critical in my path to healing. However, it has also hindered my health. I was raised in the church and used to sing soprano in the choir. I had long wanted to get baptized, but my suicidal thoughts kept me from going through with it. My pastor and his wife showed concern, and I began to do bible study with them to learn more about connecting with God. While it helped a little, and was comforting, I still struggled with suicidal thoughts. 
 
After my suicide attempt at age 14, I felt like I could never go back to church again. In the eyes of the church, I had committed the greatest sin, and I couldn’t tell anyone because I knew I would be labeled. It would be about six years before I stepped into another church again.

We Don’t Need Silence, We Need Help

Historically, mental health issues were deemed “a vice of the Devil,” and the solution was prayer and stronger faith. Unfortunately, remnants of this rhetoric are still echoed throughout churches today. 
 
While calling on someone to “hold fast to their faith” is not an issue, when it’s presented as the only answer, it silences a lot of questions. Questions like, “What do you do when prayer and faith don’t seem like enough?” Too often when someone asks this question out loud, they are met with shame or reprimand. They are told they lack faith. This message, combined with the fixation on seeming invincible, causes many Black households to ignore or hide mental health issues. 
 
Many of us have heard fragments of a story, like the one about the aunt with the “bad nerves” or that distant relative who “just has not been right since…” In some cases, their treatment is hardly talked about, and in other cases, there is never any further discussion of that family member’s health or well-being. Rarely does anyone say they were suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD or schizophrenia.
 
As I got older, and started dealing with my own mental health issues, this method of handling mental health angered me. All I could think about was how different things could be for myself and other family members if someone had the strength to be candid. 

The Church Should Be a Place of Healing

In college, I found Overcoming by Faith,a church in Savannah, GA, that came on campus to pick college students up for church. A very nice family runs this church, and they made me feel like I could attend church again. They held bible study for us, took us on women’s retreats, fed us Sunday dinners, and welcomed us all with open arms. They provided a safe space for us to worship. 
 
During one of his sermons, Pastor Rickey Temple questioned the attendees about where they wanted to be when the day comes to use their gifts. I realized that I had gotten through my suicide attempt and I wanted more — to survive, grow past it and inspire others. But to truly be a survivor, I had some work to do to get better. 
 
Journaling became a great outlet and I put direction and purpose behind my desire to inspire others to survive. My goal is to help women and girls worldwide find access to therapy through sponsorship from my organization, The Qween Foundation. We highlight community resources so people know that help is available.
 
While I am grateful to have found Overcoming by Faith, I realize not everyone has a similar moment of inspiration about religion and mental health. A growing number of Black women are consciously choosing different methods of self-care. Traditionally a place of healing and historically a community resource, the church has alienated many of those who most need what the it can provide. 

How Black Churches Can Do Better

It is refreshing to hear a faith leader admit that sometimes prayer just isn’t enough. Black women are at the forefront of this task. Minister Kelly Wofford and Minister Monique Tarver are both working on the language and stigma surrounding mental health in Black churches. Not only are they being transparent with their own struggles, they are working to change the conversation about mental health in the Black church community. 
 
Changing that conversation begins with making statements like:  

  • Mental health issues are as common as physical ones and shouldn’t be demonized, but rather, treated in the same manner as physical health issues.

  • Struggling with mental health does not mean that you lack faith.

  • As a church, we are here to support and uplift in accordance with our faith. 

My hope is that this work will inspire others to keep pushing the stigma out of Black churches, and even further, for the church to become a valuable resource for those who struggle with their mental health. By recognizing that faith is not a substitute for care, and providing resources that actually can help, churches might even see a return of Black women who were once told that they lacked faith. 
 

Alicia Montgomery is the Founder and Executive Director of The Qween Foundation Inc. She was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from Savannah State University with her Bachelor’s of Business Administration degree in management. In 2019, she was awarded the President's Second Mile Award at graduation for her remarkable leadership on campus, in the Savannah community and beyond. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s of Business Administration in human resources management and aspires to be an industrial-organizational psychologist.
 

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