One Sunday morning in Anderson, nearly 30 years ago, Reverend Dwight Holland was on mission pastor at his second church when he noticed a young woman crying.
He asked her to come to his office.
What she ended up sharing with me blew my mind,” Holland said.
Holland said the woman told him that a member of her family had molested her.
Feeling “powerless,” he did what he was trained to do: he listened, he prayed, and he gave her some scriptures.
“But in that moment she needed more than that, and she realized,” Holland said.
However, 30 years ago, when the Church did not really recognize mental health, the Netherlands persisted, eschewing the black community, considering mental illness either a sign of weakness or a source of shame.
Those were his only known options.
Today, the Netherlands, 63, is taking a completely different approach.
He has since earned a master’s degree in Psychotherapy and Faith from Christian Theological Seminary and is part of a movement to reduce the stigmatization of mental illness within black churches across central Indiana.
Holland’s work belongs to a larger national trend among black churches, which saw a roughly 20% increase in the number of churches providing some type of mental health service between 2012 and 2019, according to data from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. .
“As we have progressed from a social, economic and educational point of view, it seems that the culture has gradually shifted,” Holland said.
Mental health ‘crisis’ within the black community
In 2020, the suicide rate of young blacks increased faster than any other racial or ethnic group, according to a report by the black congressional caucus, calling it a “crisis.” Suicide attempts by black teens increased by 73% from 1991 to 2017. Injuries from suicide attempts also increased by 122% for black boys over the same period.
Brad Fulton, a sociologist at Indiana University, believes that centuries of systemic racism and daily discrimination against black Americans have left them a “mental health burden”.
A burden that continues to increase, according to Fulton, due to disproportionate job losses, food insecurity and homelessness exacerbated by the pandemic; and racial injustice and high-profile police killings of black men during 2020.
Despite the mental health crisis within the black community, black Americans use mental health services at only about half the rate of white Americans, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Fulton attributes this insufficient use to multiple factors, including medicine’s historical racial bias against black Americans and a lack of access to mental health professionals in their community.
As a result, he believes, “strengthening relationships between churches and mental health providers could be one way to increase access to needed services.”
How are churches responding?
Reverend Carlos Perkins of Bethel Cathedral AME Church, the oldest majority-black church in Indianapolis, uses a variety of tactics to address mental health.
In October, the first part of a four-part series on mental health titled You Can Have Jesus and a Healer took place. Three mental health professionals, including the Netherlands, were brought in to raise awareness and address concerns.
“We still believe in the power of prayer, but we also recognize that through prayer and professionals we help individuals understand the world,” Perkins added.
Reverend Denil Howard of Hovey Street Church agrees.
Each March, Hovey Street Christ Church hosts a full month of events focused on mental health, including workshops, presenters, and speeches focused on the topic, as well as other events throughout the year.
The No Corinthian Church has a mental health treatment center on the church grounds, where members can receive professional therapy away from where they receive God’s Word.
Perkins said these developments are important because they go against the historical view of black churches, where previously mental illness was either stigmatized or ignored.
“Mental illness was seen as demonic,” Perkins said, “a spirit to be cast out or a spell to be broken.”
In this case, he added, the remedy is always prayer.
Dionne Bates, a licensed professional counselor and senior mental health counselor for the Black Emotional and Mental Health Association, said mental illness has historically been stigmatized within black communities in general.
She attributes this to the inherited psychological conditioning of blacks as slaves more than 400 years ago.
“When you are not treated as a human being, you are not really giving permission to have the same rights as those who are considered human,” Bates said, “regarding the right to feel tired, the right to feel sad, or you have the right to feel anything except what has been said You can feel it.”
She added that blacks still ignore those experiences and realize that they have a right to their feelings.
As a result, a culture of ostracism persists within black communities, Bates said.
But that attitude is finally changing.
“People are getting hurt more and more,” Bates said. “And I think our society has now reached a point that we can’t ignore.”
Younger generations lead change in churches
Younger generations, more mentally health conscious than their predecessors, have been a driving force for change within black churches.
There is plenty of information available, and more exposure to terms like trauma and depression, and unspoken words within black churches 30 years ago, experts told IndyStar.
Gabrielle Smith, a member of Bethel Cathedral AME, is part of the influential younger generation they change.
Smith said, “There are some things that may be a little deeper rooted, and prayer alone cannot be for them. Sometimes you need to go to an authorized person for certain situations.”
Smith, 31, is a lifelong churchgoer. Her grandfather was a priest. But she also had early mental illness, raised by a mother who said she was hospitalized for depression while pregnant with Smith.
As a result, Smith said her mother encouraged her to talk about mental health.
Jennifer Faulkner, 32, said her generation is less special than older generations.
“We’re not proud,” Faulkner said. “We want to get help.”
Faulkner, who said her mother has been clinically diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, believes she has benefited greatly from mental health services at Christ Church on Hovey Street.
“I now understand her illness better, which has really strengthened our relationship,” Faulkner said. “It really helped me love her more, honestly.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the trust the black community feels toward the church, its historic “keystone,” according to Holland.
Whether it is social, economic, or political justice, the church has generally always been a compass and refuge for the black community.
“This is another opportunity to build on that tradition,” Holland continued. “The pastor is a good ambassador for help and mental health awareness in their church.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or BDrenon@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: Tweet embed.
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