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Mental illness is hurting Black faith communities. Prayer shouldn’t be our only defense.

(RNS) — It was good news. It was bad news. Just days before, I had said a funeral service for a young Black man who had been found hanged, in what appeared to be a flashback to the era of lynchings. I had stood before his grieving family, proclaiming our church’s corporate commitment to justice and retribution. Now I learned that he had apparently lost his life to suicide.

The good news was that he had not been killed; he was not another Black man whose life had been snuffed out by racial oppression. The bad news was that he instead he had fallen victim to a dark and dim spirit that had quite likely haunted him for quite some time. It was not another chapter in the ongoing saga of racism, but a manifestation of the whispered, often hidden reality of mental illness in my community.

In the Black community, mental issues have always been hush-hush. We are more likely to trump our mental fears with spiritual faith. We are more likely to go to the altar than go to a therapist. This is not so much a rejection of the medical profession as the historic attempt to distance ourselves from demonic, spiritualist, occult practices. Whatever the origin, it is something we have never talked much about.

Most of all, you don’t talk about this stuff outside of the family; in fact you don’t talk about it too much in the family! 

I traffic in the company of charismatics and Pentecostals. One of our buzz phrases is “the anointing.” We pray for it. We admire it. We judge it. We want it. We prioritize it. One of our staple Scriptures is Jesus’ announcement after his victory over temptation in the wilderness, as he stood in the synagogue on the Sabbath and proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Jesus’ assignment is to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. Isn’t it interesting that these words were recorded by Luke, a physician? It is also worth noting that Jesus, who healed physical bodies, opened blind eyes and unstopped deaf ears, is declaring that his mission also extended into the nebulous fragile realm of the “heart.” He was also sent to heal broken hearts.

We are told a person “thinks” with the heart, loves with the heart and reasons with the heart. The heart/mind can also be broken, crushed, weakened, confused, flawed, cracked, shattered and oppressed.

In a recent article on Black therapists, Marketplace’s Alisa Roth reports that the killing of George Floyd seems to have triggered an increase in trauma and anxiety in the African American community. In Los Angeles, a Black psychologist noted that he was treating more Black men than ever. It’s possible that the phenomenon is due not only to increasing psychological stress, but an increased acknowledgment of the need to seek help among people who are more prone to keep it to themselves.

Protesters reenact the scene where George Floyd was restrained by police, while marching in a solidarity rally June 2, 2020, in New York, calling for justice over his death. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The director of Champion Counseling Center, the community counseling ministry of our church, Erica Holmes, informed me that less than 4% of psychologists nationwide are African American, a shortage that actress Taraji P. Henson has begun to address through her nonprofit. But mental illness does not discriminate, and so Henson is not alone: In a recent documentary, the Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps said he is on a quest to “destigmatize mental illness.” Mariah Carey, Mel Gibson and Demi Lovato are all sharing their struggles in the hope of inspiring others to acknowledge theirs and accept help to live productive careers and manageable lives.

To be clear, I stand with the proponents of prayer and faith as an aid to mental health. But I also affirm that prayer often reveals the need to add earthly action to our heavenly appeals.

That was what I told my parishioner who was abducted, chased and shot by her mentally ill husband, and, while lying in a pool of her own blood, witnessed him die in a “suicide by cop.” After she was unable to stop revisiting the incident — to stop “pressing the replay button,” we realized she had a need that went beyond her place on the prayer list. She found a compassionate, professionally trained therapist who walked her through her lingering trauma.

Those men and women who are trained to help individuals suffering from mental illness and traumatic experiences are the hands and feet of Jesus, ministering to the suffering, downtrodden and lowly in heart. Professional help, when combined with prayer and with the comfort of a community of uplifting believers, is a gift from God.

It’s not like Jesus to sweep pain under the rug. It’s not like Jesus to dismiss the suffering of the lowly. And it’s certainly not like Jesus to ask that others keep their pain to themselves because it is just “too much” for us to think about or address.

God is in the business of shedding light on the darkness. What we keep hidden as individuals or as a community can never be eradicated. It’s by the grace of God that we have such resources, tools and knowledge available to make sense out of what was once confusing and bring healing to what was shattered. Mental illness isn’t selective.

Just as “there is no sin which is uncommon to man,” there is no condition that any member of the Black community is immune from just because they’ve been told to keep it to themselves or that it isn’t real. We serve El Roi, the God who sees us. He sees us in our pain, and he sees our silent suffering when nobody else does.

It is time that we open our eyes so that we can see, address and heal emotional pain and suffering in the black community before it is once again too late.

(Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, is the author of “Walls Can Fall.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)