New organization aims to improve black mental health with help from churches

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Pictured above, volunteers and staff are part of the first cohort of trainers for the Soul Shop for Black Churches. Left to right: Victor Armstrong, Reverend Daphne Swinton, Markita Madden-Puckett, Tandra Rutledge, Reverend Dr. Frozine Reece-Smith, WyKisha Thomas-McKinney, Reverend Dr. DeLois Brown-Daniels and Phillip Tyler. Image courtesy of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  • Soul Shop for Black Churches is a new effort by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that works to change attitudes and improve access to mental health services in communities of color.
  • The one-day workshop helps train faith leaders to identify and provide support to members of their congregations who may be dealing with mental health issues.
  • He also works to end the stigma of mental health issues and the need for professional treatment.

Phillip Tyler lost his 22-year-old son, Devon, to suicide nearly five years ago.

“I was raised by a black father from the Deep South, Arkansas, during the Jim Crow days. And he was raised by his father, who was a military man, [who taught him] put on the mask. Never let them see you cry. Never show your emotions in public [because] it shows you’re weak,” Tyler told Healthline. “His father raised him like that. And I raised my children like that. And because of this misinterpreted masculinity, the pressure of our emotions, I’m sonless today.

Tyler, an Air Force veteran, past president of the Spokane NAACP and a devout Southern Baptist, said his experience and new understanding of how family, friends and community can help a person facing mental health challenges, inspired him to join a new program. — one that aims to prevent suicide by giving black religious leaders the tools they need to help.

Soul Shop for Black Churches was launched in August by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The one-day workshop aims to equip faith leaders with the skills to help them identify and provide support to members of their congregations who may be dealing with mental health issues and families who have been impacted by the suicide.

“The church has always had such a footprint in the black community and it’s really that gateway to the community,” said Victor Armstrong, MSW, national director of Soul Shop for Black Churches.

Armstrong, who also sits on the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in North Carolina, said that because the black church is “the place the community turns to for guidance,” it “makes sense that the black church could have a role to play in raising suicide awareness.

Armstrong explained that “Soul Shop” training is about helping faith leaders create “soul safe” communities.

He defines them as places where people feel in a spiritually, mentally, and emotionally safe space, where they feel they can be vulnerable and talk about the pain they are feeling.

The workshops also educate faith leaders about a range of resources they can use to refer others who may need care from mental health professionals.

“Obviously, we don’t train them to become clinicians. Taking a Soul Shop day won’t make you a medical professional,” he said. “But what it does is it helps people think about it differently.”

Armstrong explained that one of the main goals of the workshop is to encourage religious leaders to speak more openly about how “suicide, anxiety, depression and hopelessness exist in the church” and that “that doesn’t make you any less of a Christian.” to discuss and resolve these issues.

“The same way they care for people in physical pain, they have to care for people in emotional pain,” he said.

Organizations like the Soul Shop for Black Churches were created in response to an alarming trend in black communities: rising suicide rates.

According to a November 2021 report from the Centers for Disaster Control and Preventionthe overall suicide rate in the United States decreased by 3% in 2020. But the suicide rate has increased among the black population, an increase that began before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Armstrong thinks some of the contributing factors to this increase are the unique extra loads that people of color carry.

“Racism is one of those things. Some of the historical traumas we face are unique to the black community,” he said.

Rheeda Walker, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, is a clinical psychologist who researches and writes about ethnic minority mental health and suicide prevention.

In addition to stressors that come from outside communities of color, she said mental health stigma within the community also plays a significant role.

“There’s an awful lot of stigma, but in the African-American community there’s even more stigma because of this perception of weakness,” she told Healthline. “It becomes something that compromises an individual’s ability to be able to talk about mental health issues.”

She added, “All of these things are kind of lumped together in this web of ‘Well, I don’t want to talk about that. And I don’t want to tell people my business,” and that kind of cultural language used that says, “We’re not going to do that.

In research she conducted, Walker said she found that black people who have a strong, positive sense of what it means to be a black person and who have a connection to a “higher power” tend to be “less likely to think about suicide and to easily create suicide plans.

However, she speculated that the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were unable to attend churches in person, may have made matters worse for some by “adding gas to a fire that was already percolating”.

“It’s a great idea,” Walker said of organizations like Soul Shop for Black Churches. “It’s really extremely important to be able to tailor prevention and response to specific communities. So, I’m really glad to hear that they’re putting that in place.

Dr. Erica Martin Richards, chair and medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Sibley Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, enthusiastically endorsed Walker’s assessment. .

“I applaud this initiative,” she told Healthline. “The goal is to figure out how we can do outreach that’s culturally sensitive, that’s available, and that really reaches the right people in order to try and effect change in outcomes.”

Richards added that churches, especially in black communities, have long played a role in helping members heal.

“When we look at this from a healing perspective, it is these religious leaders who are identified as the spiritual advisors, but also the resources for struggling congregations,” she said.

Equally important, Richards pointed out, is the message parishioners are sharing that people don’t “betray their faith” by seeking help from mental health professionals.

“It’s basic sanity and we really want to be clear that you can do both,” explained Richards, who also identifies as a person of faith. “I believe that prayer has a role in healing. I believe that prayer has a role to play in helping to treat, as there is not necessarily a cure for mental health, but to help treat mental health issues.

“But I also think there’s a role for more modern medicine, for therapy that’s outside of what prayer can do, and so you have to understand that you’re not weak. If you ask for help is actually a sign of strength,” she added.

Richards said getting people to share their stories can play a key role in preventing suicide.

“It may be in the testimonies at church. Sometimes people write for the church newsletter or the community newsletter,” she said. “Sometimes just talking one-on-one and identifying good interactions they’ve had with therapists or counselors can help encourage others to seek the same results.”

Tyler said he takes every opportunity that comes his way to do just that. He explained that sharing his story gives him a way to turn his grief into positive action.

It’s a message he’s shared with his own colleagues at Restoration Church in Spokane, where he encourages parents to look for and listen for signs of trouble.

He knows stories can have the power to open minds and change hearts, and if sharing his can help others better understand how to approach mental health, he is happy to continue doing so.

Tyler said he hopes for a future where mental health issues are no longer stigmatized and no parent has to experience the loss of their child to suicide as he did.

“That’s what drives me to do this,” he said.

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