July 17th, 2009
12:29 PM ET

African American churches fighting mental health ‘demons’

By John Bonifield
CNN Medical News Producer

Rev. Leland Jones resigned from his church to fight in Iraq. When he returned home in November 2007, he was injured and using a walker. Ten days later his wife told him that she wanted a divorce.

Jones, the pastor of Greater New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, was in a dark place.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/17/art.black.men.depression.jpg caption="Reverend Leland Jones, Greater New Light Missionary Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA."]
"I felt the walls of my soul beginning to close in," Jones told an audience of health care providers, local clergy and residents during a recent forum on mental well-being hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A therapist diagnosed the reverend with depression.

"Even though I was getting back to an integrated mindset as to how to operate in this world, everything that was important to me was no longer there for me," Rev. Jones said.

In any two-week period more than 1 in 20 Americans experience depression, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates are higher among blacks than whites, and yet a report by the surgeon general found that the percentage of blacks who actually get mental health care is only half that of whites.

Instead, it's the black church that's become the place for emotional triage. Rev. Jones, who is black, says too frequently African-American churches contribute to the access problem.

"Biblically we have looked at mental health as being infused with demons," Jones said. "Don't get me wrong. There are demons. But is that the diagnosis for everyone who is exhibiting behavior outside the norm? No, it is not."

Allen Carter, an African-American psychologist who has worked extensively with Atlanta's black community, agrees.

"Church is still the most powerful instrument in the black community," Carter said. "For very minor depression, talking to a pastor could be sufficient, but not for very major depression."

Rev. Jones and members of the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta have teamed up with National Alliance on Mental Illness to educate African-American congregations about the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Efforts to change attitudes are underway elsewhere as well.

Dianne Young, a Memphis pastor at the Healing Center Full Gospel Baptist Church, leads a coalition of ten local congregations that are placing the black church on the front line in addressing mental health concerns.

Working with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Magellan Health Services, the churches have created "emotional fitness centers" to help faith leaders screen for signs of mental illness when parishioners come to them for support. A licensed professional counselor refers struggling church-goers to mental health care centers when appropriate. In a four month period, the program screened 477 people and referred 315 people to professional providers.

"You can have faith and get help," Young said. "We are the only one like this, but we want to see them all over the country."

The depression that Rev. Jones experienced has spurred him to speak up.

"The first thing we need to do is literally just listen. Find out what's going on. But at the same time, prayerfully–and praying with them–find out if they will allow us to then take it to the next step if possible," Jones said. "If someone is not rational, we need to find someone who is a caretaker or a caregiver for that person. But we need to seek the help that's necessary."

You can watch Rev. Jones on House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta this Saturday and Sunday at 7:30A ET on CNN.

And tell us what you think. Would you go to a leader within your faith if you were experiencing a mental health issue? What would your expectations be?

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