Magazine article The Christian Century

Black Churches Address Suicide, Mental Illness

Magazine article The Christian Century

Black Churches Address Suicide, Mental Illness

Article excerpt

The death of comedian Robin Williams has heightened awareness of suicide and mental health. But many African-American churches quietly began educating members on the issue well before.

"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 United States 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 carry out suicide than their black counterparts, more African-American teens (8.3 percent) attempt 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.

William and Dianne Young cofounded the National Suicide and the Black Church Conference about a decade ago after one of their congregants shot and killed herself under a large cross on the church grounds in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty people attended the first biennial meeting, and about 500 attended the 2013 gathering.

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

The couple started "Emotional Fitness Centers" at ten churches in Tennessee, in hopes they will increase access to services and reduce the stigma associated with therapeutic care.

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 ten African-American churches educate congregants about mental health for the next three years. …

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