Last month, a black man in Cleveland shot a random, elderly man on Facebook Live after a conflict with his ex-girlfriend. Friends and coworkers of shooter Steve Stephens mentioned the man’s history of behavioral and mental disorders, but in the days following the story ― even after the shooter committed suicide ― his mental health went largely disregarded and unreferenced.
Compare this to the media coverage of Dylann Roof, a white man who killed nine black churchgoers in cold blood in 2015 ― where, almost immediately following the shooting, psychiatrists were brought on air to discuss possible diagnoses, and headlines like, “Why didn’t anyone help Dylann Roof?” and “Mental Illness Common Thread for Mass Shootings” were everywhere you looked. This is not to dismiss the cold, callous nature of the Cleveland shooter’s actions, but to point to an inconsistency that must be addressed.
It’s not just in the news that black men’s mental health is overlooked. In the black church, where members of the community have always come for guidance and emotional respite during hard times, many faith leaders shy away from open discussions about mental illness, and rely on the power of prayer to take the pain away.
Now more than ever it seems an unarmed black man or boy is shot by police, and the deep despair in our community becomes more and more palpable. Church leaders have a responsibility to discuss black male trauma, mental health, and healing. Each Sunday is an opportunity to offer testimonies that could drive congregants to the lifesaving services that so many go without.
Statistics show that of the 45.7 million black people living in the United States, 16 percent had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year ― that’s over 6.8 million people walking around with diagnosable, yet likely untreated mental illnesses. African Americans of all ages are also more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than their white counterparts, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
These numbers do not occur in a bubble ― we can connect the growing rates of depression and suicide in the black community to an increase in the visibility of oppression and violence. As we see a rise in trauma among black men, why are we not increasing our response and offering more resources to those who are ill, especially in houses of worship that are supposed to help the most vulnerable?
While stigma around mental illness is widespread, there is a particularly insidious silence around black men’s struggles ― one that has been compounded by the church, where stoically suffering in silence is too often encouraged. As faith leaders, we can set a powerful example by preaching from our own experience. I have spoken openly about my battles with depression, and how I turned not only to my faith but to mental health professionals for help. Telling my story to congregants, colleagues, and friends has helped others feel comfortable doing the same, and helped them have the courage to seek treatment.
It’s not just stigma that holds black men, and many low-income people, back from seeking mental health treatment. Seeing a therapist is expensive, and people often don’t know where to turn when they don’t see psychiatrists’ signs hanging in their neighborhood. Breaking the silence and reducing stigmas around seeking care is only the first step in healing decades-old wounds. With so few services offered to low-income residents, and even fewer offered by black owned, community-based institutions—those in need of care often lack access to the affordable services that would make the greatest impact on their health. Our communities are health deserts, where access to basic healthcare remains sparse. When it comes down to mental health, resources can seem impossible to find in the exact places where people need them most.
Faith leaders can do something about this, too. In December, we at First Corinthian Baptist Church opened The HOPE Center ― a free, high-quality mental health counseling service for the Harlem community, just blocks from our church. Since our opening, we’ve had overwhelming demand. We have been heartened to see black men suffering from undiagnosed, untreated anxiety and depression walk through our doors to get help for the first time. We’ve begun to see transformation in our community now that the silence has been broken and people know that their church is here to help, not hide, their problems.
For black men, and for all people, seeking help for mental health issues should not be treated as taboo by the church – in fact, we should promote it as a step toward realizing one’s full potential and living more fully in one’s faith. The trauma in our community is significant, and our response must be equally so.
Pastor Walrond is Sr. Pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem where heads an 11,000-member congregation that’s grown from just 300 when he joined the church, including major growth among millennials.