PHILADELPHIA – As an ordained deacon, Laverne Williams noticed in the 1990s that many congregation members at Black churches often went to clergy members for help with mental health issues. But honest conversations about mental health in churches were not regular occurrences then, and health was a “very small part of the curriculum,” she said.
Williams, a social worker based in North Jersey, was in a unique position to address this gap because of her familiarity with church language and customs. So in 1995, she secured a grant from the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and produced a video about how faith communities have or have not been helpful to people with mental health issues.
“I looked around, and there was not a lot of language about this pertaining to African American communities,” she said.
In 2005, Williams founded PEWS (Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality), a program that provides training and education to pastors, deacons and church ministries to address the stigma of mental health. In the last 16 years, Williams has worked with more than 100 faith communities and educated more than 8,000 participants and their families.
Mental health in Black communities continues to be an area of concern for public health experts. About one in five adults in America experiences mental health issues each year, regardless of race, but Black Americans use mental health services at about half the rate of white Americans. These issues have only intensified during the pandemic. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June showed that 15% of Black respondents seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, compared with 8% of white respondents. Nearly half of Black respondents also reported more than one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.
Over the last year, churches around the country have taken similar approaches to PEWS. Churches are an effective contact point for raising mental health awareness because of their influence in Black communities. According to the Pew Research Center, 91% of Black Americans say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.
During the pandemic, Williams has been continuing her work through Zoom sessions with churches all over the state. In the sessions, she shows the video, shares an overview of what mental illness is, and fields questions.
“I’m just trying to get people familiar with the language and treatment options,” Williams said. “Because people go to their faith communities for help and healing.”
In Williams’ video, pastors and mental health experts discuss how Black Americans have dealt with the stigma of mental illness, seen by many in their communities as a “white man’s disease,” which prevents them from seeking help. One religious leader stressed the importance of “removing the notion that mental illness is the result of the presence of sin.”
The videos have been especially helpful during a year of virtual services, which have caused people to feel more disconnected from their communities, said the Rev. Eva C. Foster, who leads Union Baptist Church in Irvington, N.J.