How The Church Failed My Mother's Mental Health

For most black folks, faith and liberation are a tandem. But every institution has its limitations.
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<p>Sunday’s Best- 1999</p>

Sunday’s Best- 1999

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a discussion about the state of mental health in the black community. This discussion was geared to how mental health treatment is often supplemented with faith and religious platitudes.

The duality of this discussion was just as much frustrating as it was introspective. Throughout the discussion, I couldn’t help but think of my mother, who, like so many countless others, suffered from depression.

My mother was never prescribed antidepressants or admitted into a mental health facility. In fact, she rarely discussed her mental health with the family besides her occasional “Y’all are working my very last nerve” or “I can’t deal with this today” mama monologues.

I don’t remember when I first noticed my mother’s depression. Nor can I point to the exact moment(s) in her life that triggered her illness. But I’m certain that poverty, motherhood, workplace stress, and deep-seated childhood traumas were contributing factors. In her most vulnerable moments, my mother found solace in her Bible.

She kept an old ragged King James Version that sat on an antique vanity dresser. Both of which had previously belonged to my grandmother. Nearly every other page of her Bible was highlighted. Whenever I got a chance, I would shuffle through the pages and admire the quick flashes of colors. My mother’s favorite verse was Psalms 23:4. It was her battle cry during her most trying times.

My mother was a card-carrying Southern Baptist. She wasn’t the “holier than thou, I go to church and catch the Holy Ghost every Sunday” type. She was more of the “Jesus Christ is my personal healer, savior, and confidant, but I’ll still cuss you out if need be” type.

As a Christian, she believed that the trials and tribulations she experienced in life was the manifestation of evil. And the only way to combat this darkness was through prayer, obedience, praise, and worship. That belief was affirmed every time she entered the doors of the church. We attended a rather small church that sat on the back side of a farm to market road that you would need a physical map to find.

The parishioners of the church were kind and like-minded. During benediction, the pastor would call the entire congregation from the pews to surround him as he prayed for healing and deliverance for the afflicted. “We’re all family here” he would say.

When my mother felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, she would lean on prayer for mental deliverance. Though I couldn’t fully conceptualize my mother’s plight at the time, I figured if Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, then surely he could help my mother. She would slowly walk down the aisle to lay her burdens, frustrations, and inadequacies down. Even in her most vulnerable moments, my mother was still a proud woman. But each time she sat down for prayer, it took a little piece of her pride. Life was getting the best of her. Joy seemed like an ever so distant hope.

Echoes of reassurance and declarations of deliverance acted as placebos for my mother. There was a ringing amen for every hallelujah. My mother was given a wide array of treatments that included but was not limited to, prayer, fasting, patience, more prayer, faith, and obedience. And each time, she did just as the pastor ordered. Whether the pastor knew it or not, he was acting as my mother’s mental health practitioner. The results were sporadic at best.

There were times when she seemed renewed and on the path to recovery. And then there were times when divine deliverance seemed more like an idea than an actual thing. Those days were the toughest. Imagine a child feeling guilty for having joy. It is a conflicted feeling, to say the least. Sunday after Sunday my mother would find herself back at the altar; more times than I’m sure she wanted. I will never forget those sad gazes of hopelessness she would exhibit before she mustered the strength to get up.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what was on her mind at those very moments. I knew what was on mine. I was skeptical, but I didn’t have a better solution. I just knew my mother was unhappy and Jesus better hurry up. I’m certain no one was more anxious than my mother. On one particular Sunday, my mother asked me to walk her to the altar. Earlier that week, she experienced several episodes of extreme fatigue and nausea. I held my mother as the pastor prayed.

That would be the last time my mother went to the altar.

At 39, she was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis. Less than a month later, she was gone. She spent her final days heavily sedated and surrounded by loved ones. It was the closest thing to deliverance she would find in this world.

To my knowledge, my mother was never referred or encouraged to seek clinical mental health treatment. In retrospect, I’m not sure if the church recognized my mother’s or anyone else’s need for mental health treatment. I am not here to point fingers or place blame. I only care to make a simple point.

The black church has always been looked to as the hub for black liberation. For most black folks, faith and liberation are a tandem. But every institution has its limitations.

The church has been many things, but it has never been a mental health facility. Nor should it attempt to operate as one. For what shall it profit a man to save his soul, but lose his mind? That question is rhetorical. My mother understood she had a mental illness. Perhaps she believed that she could leverage her mental health by strengthening her spiritual health.

There are days, sorta like today, when I wonder how different her life may have been if she had gotten the help that she so desperately needed.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.