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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Marcia

    Wonderful! Being a survivor of domestic abuse from the age of 16 to 33 by my husband you can do your best to run from depression but it does not work. I had colon cancer and I would have cancer anyday than deal with domestic violence. I have depression that runs in our family blood line and I have a great uncle that speant 20 + years in a mental institution. He is out and living a normal life from what I hear.
    I am now a grandmother and great grandmother at the age of 54 and I continue to walk in the land of the lord. I have come to the conclusion that it all ties together, however the church needs to make sure they have the right people, because you would be surprised of what members are hiding their own depressions.

    Thank you

    July 17, 2009 at 18:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Judith R. James, EdD


    "The Mis-education of the Negro - in 21st Century America - is because of the Negro: An Appeal to Black Americans to Embrace the Biology of Belief, the Physics of Faith and the "WILL" to Succeed as the Stimulus for Accountability."

    While my book is written to address historical academic underachievement among African Americans, the principles specific to the Biology of Belief, the Physics of Faith and the "WILL" are discussed as the GENERIC SOLUTION and the stimulus to catapult the African American above (versus under) their negative circumstances.

    I am promoting my book in the African American FAITH Community, to African American Community Leaders (e.g. NAACP, etc.), African American Educators (e.g. United Negro College Fund, Presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities), African American Parents and the African American student.

    July 18, 2009 at 08:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Meredith Cooper

    The first step is to get the church leadership to a greater level of understanding that mental illness is no different from any other physical ailment. Many lay persons are ignorant because the leadership teaches them to be, and for those individuals that reach out or want to reach out for help, it is difficult because ... Read Morethey are made to feel weak, faithless, and/or demon possessed. I have come to a conclusion through personal observation that anything the church doesn't understand is filed under "demonic possession"; "that aint nothing but the devil" it is time for leadership to empower the membership and not hold them in bondage/ignorance.

    July 18, 2009 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. chukwuma

    nigerian christians have the same problem with african-americans....all mental problems are seen as demonic.

    July 19, 2009 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Michael from Nigeria

    I would surely go to my spiritual leader especially if the root of my mental suffering is somewhat inclined spiritually...i have no doubts that there are other root causes to this overwhelming trauma, bt i have come to find out that a majority it have a lot of spiritual connection like guilt from one's sins...and i will definitely seek freedom from the bondage of my mental imprisönment...

    July 19, 2009 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lauren R. Wheeling, WV

    Back in NJ, battling foreclosure and depression, as a Catholic, I sought help from not one but two Catholic churches. My local church to which I belonged looked at me like I was from Mars when I asked to speak to a priest. My other church, to which I'd belonged 33 years, flat out slammed the door in my face. His excuse: it was after 5pm; he was off-duty.

    I now see a faith based counselor, but she's not part of my church, and I prefer it that way. Many wonderful churches do provide couseling, so I hope my story is uncommon.

    July 19, 2009 at 18:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lisa

    I too am a Black America female and suffer with depression. I do believe for our culture we were taught if you take medicine dealing with an illness that most believe you are "crazy" and for this reason some of us won't get treated or don't have a clue what depression is.
    I do hope that we continue to eduate others on this serious illness. Thanks

    July 19, 2009 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Ne-na

    Absolutely true. Many blacks are taught directly and indirectly that there is no such thing as a mental illness...we are taught to believe that if we are feeling depressed or even sad we are to seek the lord. Education is needed in this area because clinical depression is different from that of sadness. Blacks, especially older blacks have been taught that God will solve everything....while I do believe that God is essential in one's life, I do support the notion of getting medical intervention for a mental illness.

    July 19, 2009 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Thembi Huff

    I often wondered if people with mental issues were possessed by a demonic spirit. As an African American, it is refreshing to read this. We need to get this message out in the Black Community so we can start to understand and get the help that we need. We need to disspell the negative thoughts that are associated with mental illness. It is vital that we teach our future generations on how to cope with mental illness and not to be ashamed or embrassed by it.

    God can and will help us but it also require us to take action. You have to ask for it and He is faithful to help you. I understand that a great job is not going to fall out of the sky, but it I am faithful to him and take steps (e.g. going completing school and applying for jobs) along with prayer, then I land a good job, or the house, or whatever your heart desire.

    July 20, 2009 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. V. Hammer

    As a sufferer of recurring clinical depression, it is so difficult to reach up your hand for help when you are in the abyss of depression. It is even hard to reach your hand up for God's help, even though you truly believe. It is not demonic. It is a health condition. What these people are doing is wonderful, and it should be part of every congregation, Black or White. Just having the knowledge of what depression is receiving encouragement is helpful when you are doubting your very need for existance.

    July 22, 2009 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mohd

      There's a small and excellent onnlie depression support group called Depression Hangout that is always open to anyone who is struggling with mental health problems (not just depression). It's run in its own chaotic way by its members who meet regularly in the chat room and it's a great place to seek and provide help and support, make new friends and even just have a laugh. (We all need that too!) To join just go to depressionhangout-dot-blogspot-dot-com.

      October 14, 2012 at 00:41 | Report abuse |
  11. P. Browne

    Very Interesting... I am African decent and I know the views of my people which in turn leaves many of us not seeking the "professional" help needed to decrease the symtoms of depression. I also believe in the power of prayer and knowing that God is in control.

    July 23, 2009 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. jynuine

    Biblically, this is true! You can exercise the demon- but without filling it with God, it will come back to find the 'house swept and prepared for it with 7 more evil demons'.

    July 23, 2009 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Terence

    Seeking professional help is no doubt necessary in handling depression,but most time its easier and more effective for me wen combine with those faith filled words i received from my pastor in church anytime i go for concelling wth regard 2 my depression.

    July 24, 2009 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Joe

    The bible is make believe..

    July 24, 2009 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. William Rice

    I appreciate the honesty and the candor by Pastor Jones. Having served overseas and returned to a world much like he described I can relate to the issue of depression. I hope the dialog with Pastor Jones, or real people like him can continue because it helps to give hope and encouragement and direction to people like myself who are trying to cope.

    PS. I am not a church going man after seeing the program yesterday I got up and visited the church down the street.

    September 7, 2009 at 05:24 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Ms. J.

    crazy people are NEVER cured by psychiatry. Its all demonic if you don't have real faith Satan prevails.

    July 20, 2014 at 13:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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