Changing the narrative behind mental illness within the Black church

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ST. LOUIS – As mental health becomes a growing concern across the nation, it remains a taboo topic in communities of color. One local organization is reframing how the church and faith leaders view and address mental health throughout the St. Louis region.

Historically, churches that serve the black community have not just functioned as houses of worship. They serve as community resource centers, to provide access to social services and even family counseling. But why is the conversation around mental health such a touchy topic?  

“It’s been a negative impact in African American families for years, and those in our families who have suffered from some form of mental illness have always been pushed back from the forefront,” explains Pastor B.T Rice of New Horizon Christian Church.

Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, or gender identity, yet we see stark differences in access to treatment. According to the American Psychiatric Association studies show that compared with other groups, African Americans with mental illness have lower rates of any mental health service use; and those with psychoses are more likely to be incarcerated.  

It’s studies like these that prompted Bridges Pathway to Recovery to make sure St. Louis City and County faith leaders are equipped to respond appropriately to the stigma and health disparities throughout the community.  

“We provide them with the tools that are necessary to change what’s happening in the church, and once we leave they are able to stabilize, there able to continue,” Senior Program Manager, Rose Jackson-Beavers points out.

Church leaders and their congregants receive mental health training and skill building, so that they can serve as personal mental health educators and advocates. 

“We ask the pastors to preach from the pulpit… since a lot of it started from the pulpit we have to change it from the pulpit,” said Jackson-Beavers.

To date, Bridges to Care and Recovery has trained a total of 78 churches resulting in the graduation of over 241 Wellness Champions. Once training is completed they receive a certificate in a church plaque that notes that the church is a “Behavioral Health-Friendly Congregation”.

Despite the belief that no matter how great the burden, prayer is the answer. Pastor Rice wants other faith leaders to know that implementing mental health ministries and other specially designed programs has proven to be a positive alternative.  

 “It is just been a blessing to so many pastors that you talk to, they will tell this is one of the greatest blessings they had because many of us have to deal with those mental ill issues and didn’t know how to do it” said Rice.

During this global health pandemic cities nationwide are exploring ways to separate law enforcement from mental health care. Bridges to Care and Recovery is just one of the local organization’s law enforcement partners with to get a better understanding of mental health issues.

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