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Addressing Mental Health in the Church, Part 1

Jessica Johnson on

Toward the end of May my pastor, Overseer S.D. Carter, began a mental health series for our church, Vision of Breath with Life Ministries in Columbus, Ohio. The series has extended into June and has a similar theme to last month's National Alliance on Mental Illness' "Take the Moment" campaign, which focused on support for family caregivers and mental health providers.

Carter's objective is to address how the topic of mental health is often stigmatized in religious circles. "It's difficult for many believers who do not struggle with suicidal ideation, depression, or anxiety to understand the bottomless pit that those battling these destructive emotions feel they are in," she explains. "Even though those in church have trials with occasional anxiety or depressive feelings, people with a diagnosed mental illness face unique challenges."

Carter started our first session with statistics from studies cited by the National Institute of Mental Health and the World Health Organization. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration listed on NIMH's website, more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness. WHO projects that 1 in 4 people globally will face mental health problems.

As those in our ministry contemplated these numbers, I brought up a cultural angle of how I sometimes saw mental health perceived in the African American community when I was a teenager. I remember the misguided perception that many Black folk were too resilient and strong to succumb to a mental disorder because "we" pushed through our trauma, disappointments and setbacks resulting from years of racism and discrimination. I now wonder how many Black adults in my community during my youth in the 1980s were masking pain suffered in their lives and fighting against feelings of hopelessness and despair. Back then, mental health was not a recurrent topic of discussion in churches or even schools, but thankfully, this is changing.

While discussing the spiritual encouragement that Scripture provides regarding God's promises of deliverance and healing for mental health battles raging in the soul, Carter also effectively tackled one of the main damaging viewpoints in some churches regarding receiving therapy. "Many well-meaning Christians have said things like we don't need a counselor when we have the Great Counselor God," Carter pointed out. "This is an unfortunate misconception, and it is harmful to believe that we do not need doctors and therapists. God works through trained people in these fields." Carter stressed to us that we should never feel ashamed if we need professional treatment for a mental health issue and that we must always prioritize our mental well-being. She then opened up and told us that she had also received counseling from a therapist during her time working as a hospice chaplain. "I needed therapy in how to deal with my emotions of grief and fear," Carter shared. "I cared deeply for the people that I was praying for along with their families. Although I took joy in my job, it was still difficult to see so much death, and the passings of some of my relatives also added to my sadness. I knew God wanted me to be honest about everything that I was going through. I had to look at my church. I had to look at my family and take steps towards greater freedom and health."

 

One of the final points Carter accentuated in our session is that talking means a lot when it comes to getting mental health support. This resonated with me because throughout my life I have had a tendency to avoid communication when dealing with contentious situations. I felt being silent was a way to cope, but I now know that this is a detrimental reaction. Talking with a trusted friend or trained counselor is extremely beneficial because it scales back frustration. "Speaking about how you are really feeling will allow others to share their own struggles," Carter said. "Everyone is fighting some kind of battle, which is part of being human. We must make sure that we are understood and heard."

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Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on X: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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