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As Black Church Grapples With Mental Health, Clergy Are Both Subject and Solution

The church reflects this taboo about mental illness by classifying suicide as a sin, which is “not helpful,” said Procter, who cites a verse from the Book of Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

As a result, clergy tend to lack training in mental health and suicide prevention. They might also struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves but not know where to turn.

The first step to ending this cycle, Procter said, is to stop clergy from only reacting to mental health problems when they become a crisis. “Pastors are traditionally, historically putting out fires. That’s what we do. But if we can get to a place where we are proactive in things, then maybe it might be smoke and not a fire.”

This may mean knowing crisis intervention training officers in the area, or simply having on hand the number for a suicide crisis hotline or even a resource sheet on suicide prevention and intervention.

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A more robust solution is training in suicide prevention through LivingWorks Faith, a program that grew out of longtime work with the U.S. Navy chaplaincy, or Soul Shop for Black Churches, which teaches LivingWorks ASIST techniques in a one-day workshop for Black clergy.

“Churches are an important part of many Black communities, a trusted resource, a safe place to go,” said Garra Lloyd-Lester, the coordinator of community and coalition initiatives at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York City’s Office of Mental Health, which also offers New York clergy free access to the LivingWorks Faith programming. “It only makes sense that we have information that’s tailored to those communities, to be able to include how we talk about suicide.”

Soul Shop for Black Churches was inspired by the Rev. Erwin Lee Trollinger, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church of White Plains, New York, after he became aware of how many clergy he knew struggled with mental health. He connected with leaders at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention who in turn brought Soul Shop, a group founded by Fe Anam Avis, a onetime Ohio pastor who had experienced the loss of three young people in his church to suicide in less than a year. He eventually created a one-day suicide prevention workshop for faith leaders and turned it into a nationwide program.

With Trollinger’s call to action, Soul Shop and AFSP leadership came to the same realization: They needed to adapt the ASIST curriculum for the Black church.

“I said, ‘If you’re going to have the faith community as a target, you’ve got to make sure that the faith leaders are also trainers,’” said Pat White, chair of diversity, equity and inclusion for AFSP’s chapter covering New York’s Hudson Valley and Westchester County, home to Trollinger’s church. White insisted that all the training would take place in churches, with the senior pastor and associate pastor involved.

She also imposed a “deal breaker” threshold — at least 50% of workshop registrants had to be from the congregation of the church where the workshop was being held. “Then they as the congregation will be the messengers for all the work, all that they’re hearing, all the lessons, and then they’ll start talking by just talking,” White said.

Working with these principles, Soul Shop for Black Churches has since grown far beyond New York.

Procter is proud of the progress the cause of mental health has made in the Black church community and among its clergy. Lately, she’s found more hope in the awareness of a younger generation in mental health, including in her own home: After years of hearing the importance of mental health preached at the dinner table, Procter’s 17-year old son, her eldest boy, has recently volunteered to undergo suicide prevention training.

This article was produced as part of the RNS/Interfaith America Religion Journalism Fellowship and originally appeared here.