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August 18, 2006

Recent African American Faith Responses to Mental Illness

Rev. Byron Williams, a syndicated columnist and pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, California, was channel surfing recently when he came across another local pastor speaking on the subject of mental illness to his predominantly African-American congregation. And what he heard gave him great concern.

This pastor, writes Williams in his column, "stated that those who may be experiencing mental health issues know that such problems are not a sickness but rather a demonic spirit. He went on to further suggest that such problems could be alleviated almost immediately in 'the name of Jesus!'"

Williams dedicates the rest of his column to questioning the approach taken by this pastor and calling on his fellow African American pastors to recognize the complex nature of mental illness and to respond appropriately.

Williams writes:

"As a pastor, I believe that spirituality is a key ingredient to positive mental health, but that means the church should be working in tandem with mental health professionals and not offering simplistic remedies. More and more pastors must join forces with mental health professionals. This is particularly important for communities of color, who tend to have different attitudes about mental health from that of the dominant culture.

How might African American pastors work with mental health professionals to assist in helping parishioners and the community at-large to remove the stigma of mental health disease? The black church must assume a supportive rather than adversarial role if the portion of the African American community that lives with mental health disease is to liberate itself from the prison of hopelessness."

Read Rev. Williams full column from July 27, 2006, online at The Huffington Post

One example of a partnership between the African American church and the mental health community is occurring in Decatur, Alabama, where the NAMI Decatur affiliate recently sponsored the first African American Faith Conference on Mental Illness.

The event, held July 29, featured pastors and black church leaders both as participants and speakers. Topics included "Dispelling Myths," "The Helping Role of Ministers," and "African American Mental Health."

For more information about this event, contact NAMI Decatur. This is just one of many initiatives that NAMI groups around the country are involved with. Are you involved with mental illness outreach to or through African American faith communities? Let us know at faithnet@nami.org.

NAMI's Multicultural Action Center has produced several resources including African American mental health fact sheets, an outreach resource manual, and a guide titled "Working with Congregations to Reach African American Families with Mental Illness."

Access these and other resources for African Americans from NAMI's Multicultural Action Center.

Hurricanes Heighten Challenge

The challenges faced by black churches in responding to the crisis of mental illness in their communities have been greatly compounded in the areas ravaged by last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Studies have shown that incidences of substance abuse, depression, and suicide have increased in the Gulf region since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Local ministers often find themselves on the frontlines. Even those who would like to partner with the mental health establishment may find themselves out of luck.

As reported by Reuters on August 13, New Orleans is still waiting for its share of $80 million in federal funds to rebuild its mental health infrastructure. Only 22 of New Orleans's 196 psychiatrists have returned to the city, and the state-run psychiatric facility only has 10 total beds at the moment.

From the Reuters article:

"It is, at times, overwhelming," said Rev. Larry Campbell, assistant pastor of Israelite Baptist Church in the Central City neighborhood. He has counseled worshipers with substance abuse problems and suicidal thoughts, referring some to mental health professionals, when possible.

Read the full article online at Reuters.com


Visit the NAMI FaithNet Web site for more information on faith and mental illness


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