National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Bridge to Mental Health


(c) 2007 Herald News (Passaic Co., NJ). Reprinted with permission.

When Rose Hardy was ordained a minister in the Unity Fellowship Church a few years ago, she hoped to hide her collar at her day job.

As coordinator for outpatient mental health care at Barnert Hospital in Paterson, she feared that the two worlds didn't mix. "I was clinically trained not to go there, to stay away from religion," she said.

And likewise, on Sundays, attending her Newark church was a time to refuel spiritually, to leave her workweek at the door.

But one afternoon in 2000, while volunteering at her church's drop-in center, she overheard a conversation she could not ignore. A man walked in speaking in rapid-fire sentences. Recently fired from his job, he believed his employers discriminated against him because he was black and that they were coming to his home to attack him. With 25 years experience working in mental health, Hardy immediately saw the signs of paranoia. But the deacon to whom the man was telling the story didn't detect the illness, and sent him on his way with information on how to contact the state Department of Labor.

Seeing the need to talk about mental illness in her community, Hardy began to educate her fellow congregants at Newark's Liberty in Truth Unity Fellowship Church, a church rooted in the social justice principles of the Catholic Liberation Theology movement. She encouraged her pastor to talk about the issue on the pulpit. She advised deacons on how to detect the signs of mental illness. She taught the ushers how to gently approach a church member having a psychotic episode.

And last year while attending a mental health conference, she learned of a New Jersey pilot program that would help her combine her faith background with her mental health work at Barnert.

In the black community, mental illness is often stigmatized and undiagnosed. Church members, Hardy noticed, are comfortable standing up in services to talk about their afflictions, like HIV, and drug or alcohol addiction, but mental illness remains a hushed topic.

The Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality (PEWS) program seeks to build bridges between black churches and mental health awareness programs. Sponsored by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ), the program includes a 30-minute video, "Anything But Crazy," and a Power Point presentation geared to both clergy and mental health care providers.

Recognizing that churches are important social centers in the black community, the program speaks to the faithful through them. Advertisements for the PEWS program are printed on sturdy paper fans, traditional items found in black churches, used to cool off during services.

Launched in spring 2005 by Laverne Williams, an MHANJ community outreach coordinator, the program has forged partnerships with 10 churches throughout the state, most of them in Essex County, where Williams has connections as a deaconess at Montclair's Union Baptist Church. With a $70,000 annual budget, funded by the state and private donations, the program is just getting off the ground.

The idea grew out of Williams' own experience. In the mid-1980s, when her older sister was dying from cancer, she began to suffer panic attacks. While driving, her hands would shake uncontrollably and drip with sweat, she said. With no one to turn to, she grabbed the phone book and looked up a therapist with her same last name, grasping for familiarity. Before the first session, the therapist told her she was white and asked if that was OK. "At that point, it didn't matter. I needed help," she said. After eight weeks of therapy her panic subsided. Later when she shared her story with family and church members, they began approaching her with their own stories of mental illness. "All it takes is one person to bring it out," she said.

Some family members asked her, "What does it feel like talking to a stranger?"

A goal of the outreach is to dispel the myth in the black community that mental illness is solely a "white man's middle-class disease," said Williams. During tough times, keeping a stiff upper lip is the way to muddle through, and telling your problems to an outsider is not culturally acceptable, she said. Blacks' distrust of the mental health care system is also fueled by the lack of service providers who look like them. Nationwide only 2 percent of psychiatrists and psychologists are black, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Another stigma among the faithful is that mental illness is a punishment from God for past sins, or a result of weak faith. In one biblical story, Jesus cures a man possessed by demons -- which today would be an indication of mental illness. Living alone in the tombs, he cries out night and day and cuts himself with stones, behavior that today would be interpreted as mental illness. Jesus visits him one day and the man bows before him in prayer. In an instant, Jesus calls the demons out of him, casting them into a herd of swine.

Hardy witnessed this belief last year in a spirituality group she runs at Barnert. A woman suffering from schizophrenia shared the fact that her former pastor told her to stop taking her medications, that prayer was sufficient. She had suffered from schizophrenia since the age of 13, and her church told her she wasn't praying enough. The woman said she was forced to stop attending church, because she knew if she stopped taking her medications she would end up at Greystone, a state psychiatric hospital.

"It disturbed me," said Hardy.

Humility is key to being a good therapist, she said. She harbors no agenda to push her beliefs on others. But for patients who do believe in a higher power, engaging them in their spirituality is a powerful part of healing, empowering them to draw on their inner resources to get better, she said.

There is no magic pill in treatment, Hardy said. But for many people faith is one part of their identity, and should not be ignored.

In the coming months, Hardy will bring the PEWS presentation to share with co-workers. Next, she hopes to reach out to Paterson churches. The area has a plethora of mental illness-related addiction problems and depression, she said. Speaking to churches is one way to reach those in need.

Several church leaders have recognized the need for mental health care, and debunked the myth that prayer alone is sufficient.

"We are not practicing physicians," said the Rev. Douglas Maven of the First AME Zion Church in Paterson. "For some issues we need to know when to refer out and not to feel guilty about that."

Working the network

The Rev. David Thornton of the United Presbyterian Church in Paterson said that when referring members of his congregation for help, he dips into his church network to find a psychologist with a faith foundation.

One concern, he said, is when someone comes to rely too much on a therapist. He wonders about the effectiveness of treatment for those who spend their lives in therapy. "A life relationship with God is indispensable," said Thornton.

Hardy is excited about the receptiveness of Paterson churches to the PEWS program. The next step will be to get brochures into churches and furnish leaders with a resource guide on where best to refer members.

Other mental health professionals based in Passaic County also see the benefits of reaching out to churches. "I don't see any conflict," said Laura Coniglio, executive director of the Family Support Organization of Passaic County, based in North Haledon. "I don't care how they get through the door. Anytime someone gets the help they need, that's a positive."

Reach Sachi Fujimori at 973-569-7154 or

(c) 2007 Herald News (Passaic Co., NJ). Reprinted with permission.