Martha Crawford responds to a facilitator's question at Agape Fellowship's community event, United Prevention through Loving Intervention for Teens (UPLIFT).
Martha Crawford responds to a facilitator's question at Agape Fellowship's community event, United Prevention through Loving Intervention for Teens (UPLIFT).

It is early Saturday morning and Martha Crawford is actively engaged in a church event sponsored by Agape Fellowship Ministries in Fredericksburg, Va. She is continuously taking notes on the guest facilitator’s presentation on suicide and mental health prevention in African Americans within the church.

At first glance, the notes look like they could be from a college seminar, but they have a different meaning behind them.

“As I am writing, I notice that I have a list of things right now that are affecting me mentally,” Crawford said. “From here, I realized and said to myself, ‘Martha, you need to go back to seeing your therapist.’”

Crawford chokes up and pauses for a moment to gather her thoughts.

“Because of me being a Black woman and being in a profession where there aren’t too many of us, I feel like I always have to be strong,” Crawford said.

Although the event at Agape Fellowship is geared towards students ages 13-18, many adults such as Crawford are benefiting from the open dialogue about mental health and wellness within the African-American community.

Agape Fellowship Ministries, located in Fredericksburg, Va., is one of the few African-American churches in the area to openly discuss mental health within its congregation.
Agape Fellowship Ministries, located in Fredericksburg, Va., is one of the few African-American churches in the area to openly discuss mental health within its congregation.

While serving as the youth minister at Agape Fellowship Ministries and working as a guidance counselor in the Spotsylvania County Public School District, Crawford is continuously addressing and promoting mental health and wellness within her community every day, even as she personally wages her own battle with mental health.

“Work can have an influence on you mentally as well — people forget about that. I’m exhausted and I constantly deal with mental health all day,” Crawford said. “I’ve been through a lot.”

After the deaths of numerous family members — her mother, father and both sets of grandparents — battling a divorce, suffering a miscarriage and helping a sibling battle schizophrenia, Crawford realized that the power of prayer was simply just not enough in terms of strengthening her mental health. She decided that then it was time to seek help for it.

African-American Christians such as Crawford are now taking the necessary steps to tackle mental health, using the church as an additional healing mechanism while seeking professional help.

Continuous Cries for Help

Despite dealing with steady rates of mental illness, the African-American community continues to face a lack of both discussion and awareness regarding mental health and mental illness.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reported in 2017 that African Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic whites.

And with poverty levels being a contributing factor in the status of mental health, African Americans living below the poverty level — in comparison to those over twice the poverty level — are three times more likely to report psychological distress, according to the report released by the U.S. Department of Health.

Historically, communities of color — particularly African Americans — have long been hesitant when it comes to seeking help for their health (whether physically or mentally) for a variety of reasons. Dating back to the mid-1900s, experts from the U.S. government acknowledge that Black men were the primary target of infamous medical experiments.

One of which is the well-known Tuskegee syphilis study, in which over 600 Black men in Alabama were diagnosed with syphilis, but weren’t given sufficient treatment after the penicillin antibiotic became available.

Leslie Hinkson, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, focuses on health disparities and race-based decision-making in marginalized communities. When it comes to mental health in the African-American community, Hinkson said he believes that there is a lack of trust from the community regarding medical professionals.

“As a whole, there is a certain level of lack of trust of the African-American community with medical professional establishments,” Hinkson said. “However, that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the African-American community, it means that the medical community needs to do better in helping to build that trust from the community.”

The blame is continuously placed on the mental health community when it comes to the idea of “race-based medicine” concerning African Americans, according to Hinkson. Race-based medicine, defined by Hinkson, is a concept where specific racial groups are given certain kinds of treatments because of their racial designation.

Hinkson believes that the mental health community is guilty for the concept of race-based medicine, as mental health professionals are steadily feeding to the stigma.

“African Americans are disproportionately placed on anti-psychotic drugs when other drugs might do, Hinkson said. “They are disproportionately seen as deviant or ‘mentally unfit’ when in fact, many mental health professionals need to take into the account the real living experiences of most African Americans.”

Debunking the Stigma

Because of the stigma associated with mental illnesses — particularly within the African-American community — two Black churches are beginning to speak out about this epidemic to not only debunk the stigma, but to also bridge the gap between Black churches across all denominations and those seeking help from mental health professionals.

Agape Fellowship Ministries is one of the few Black churches in the Northern Virginia area to openly talk about the issue of mental health within its congregation. With the church’s congregation composed of only 200 members, Agape is taking strides to bridge the gap between church members and mental health awareness.

Agape Fellowship is using its Pentecostal platform to address mental health through weekly sermons explaining in detail the tangible experiences from both church leadership and its members. However, community events and facilitated discussions lead by the church are beginning to spark conversation within the community on just how important mental health is for African Americans.

One of the events sponsored by Agape Fellowship is United Prevention through Loving Intervention for Teens, a monthly ministry program created in 2016 that aims to foster healthy living — both physically and mentally — for children and teens ages 13-18 in the local community.

And most recently, Agape Fellowship hosted a dance marathon fundraiser to support the fight against sexual assault, domestic violence, homelessness and food insecurity. The event, catered to all ages, focused on raising awareness regarding problems that impact families and individuals within Stafford County and surrounding areas.

Vincent C. Allen, senior pastor of Agape Fellowship Ministries, is continuing to make efforts when it comes to breaking the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health. However, Allen’s efforts as the senior pastor have not always been quite so easy.

“I’ve been preaching for almost 30 years and as a pastor, dealing with so many internal issues, I had to be real with myself and deal with my own stuff, as well,” Allen said.

Allen, both a survivor of stage 4 cancer and a long history of childhood trauma, realized five years ago that it was time to take accountability for his mental health as he continued to address to the congregation the importance of seeking mental health help.

“This breaking point caused me not only to deal with and about it with a professional, but to introduce this dialogue in the messages that I preach to the congregation,” Allen said.

Church members at Agape Fellowship support Allen’s efforts to bring awareness about the treatment and benefits regarding mental health outside of the congregation.

Kimbra Staten, an AmeriCorps adult literacy tutor and evangelist at Agape Fellowship, fully supports the church leaderships and anticipates more of a sense of awareness and open dialogue across the Agape congregation.

“Within my home church growing up, I do remember the subject of mental health being taboo and if you had any issues, you had to cast that ‘devil’ out,’” Staten said. “Pastor Allen is very transparent. … He empowers, encourages, and talks about this subject with things that him and his wife have both been through to say if they can do it, we can do it to.”

Churches Coming Around

As the dialogue concerning mental health within the African-American community continues to open, connecting the dots between therapy and prayer could eventually address the levels of adequate care that members within the community could be receiving.

Alfred Street Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in the city of Alexandria, is also beginning to spread the gospel about mental health from the pulpit and church ministries. Having a congregation of nearly 7,000 members, members are not only able to listen to sermons regarding mental health, but can engage in the church’s mental health ministry, AGAPE.

The AGAPE ministry at Alfred Street offers counseling, life and executive coaching services and educational seminars for members in need of support during life challenges and changes. Participants in this ministry receive up to three complimentary sessions from AGAPE clinicians who are members of the Alfred Street congregation.

Dr. Anita Reed, a mental health therapist with Arlington County Public Schools and leader of the AGAPE mental health ministry at Alfred Street, believes that a connection between spirituality and mental health assistance will ultimately open a path for educating the African-American community to take accountability of their mental health.

“I think that [by connecting both] it will give us an opportunity to educate — and obviously from the pulpit — we here all sorts of things where we could and should be influencing those who are suffering to let them know that it is OK that you can still have a belief in God, but realize that there is a great need for help,” Reed said.

The alleged assumption that one is “not in touch with their spirituality” when seeking help for mental health is still being stigmatized in the African-American community. However, many remain optimistic that soon this stigma will be detached to grow and educate others when it comes to the issue of mental health.

“[We] have to come to the agreement that we must seek help for our mental illnesses, as they are illnesses; the pulpit is a perfect place to de-stigmatize mental health and de-stigmatize seeking services for seeking help,” Reed said.

Crawford agreed.

“My hope for both the present and the future is that we, the Black community, can get the message across to all churches and those that are struggling with mental illnesses to say that we need to begin to take this important topic and hit it head-on,” Crawford said.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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