One day, a fellow church attendee checked into the behavioral health facility in Cleveland where Marquez Johnson worked. “I looked at them, and they looked at me; and immediately they felt judged,” he said. “They thought I’d tell the pastor. I told them, ‘No judgement here.’”
Johnson traces back the founding of his church-based mental health organization Mind Your Business to that moment. Beginning with the church, Johnson wants to change the mental health stigma in Black communities.
“It is how we were raised,” he said. When people find themselves in crisis situations, he thinks it is because of a lack of healthy emotional processing. “A lot of it is because of what we’ve repressed; and we haven’t been heard—we haven’t had outlets in the past,” he said.
Before he found his career path at a psychiatric hospital, “I thought we had to hide it all,” he said.
When he was 6 years old, he was sexually abused by his brother, but he didn’t want to say anything. “I was raised with the concept, ‘what happens in this house, stays in this house,’” he said. His parents were very strict, and he “thought that was how things were supposed to go.”
Johnson was adopted at age 2 into a Pentecostal Holiness family, who was related to his half-brother’s adoptive family. They lived in Canton, Ohio, a smaller community about an hour south of Cleveland. “I was raised on guilt that what happened to me was my fault,” he said. The God he knew was punitive. He didn’t come to know God for himself until he was older.
“We didn’t talk about mental health. It was spiritual; it was demonic more than anything else. We had deliverance services.”
As a young man, he began training for the ministry, while working at the hospital. “I started to incorporate psychology into my preaching because I understood that if I am going to connect with anyone it’s going to start in the mind,” he said. “I started there, started opening up about my depression,” including his experience with therapy.
But when he saw a patient with whom he worshipped regularly on Sundays, he realized he had an opportunity to bridge a gap between mental health and the church.
An Opportunity for the Church
Ikeshia Smith, a psychologist who is chief strategist with Mind Your Business, suggested that churches that have historically served Black communities are uniquely positioned to address unattended mental health needs for African Americans. Currently, only one in three Black Americans experiencing a mental health problem receive treatment.
The Black church can help destigmatize mental health support and assist with access to culturally appropriate care. Smith said that one reason for the stigma is lack of racial representation. “(People) feel very much misunderstood as if someone doesn’t understand what they’re going through,” she said. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, only four percent of mental health clinicians in the US are Black.
Black Americans are less likely than other Americans to seek help but will often turn to churches to meet mental health needs. According to a 2008 study, 90.4 percent of African Americans report praying when under stress; and 89.7 percent look to God as a source of strength.
“If we’re going to affect the African American community and culture, it’s going to start in the church,” said Johnson.
Already, 45 percent of African American congregations offer some form of mental health service—a rate greater than predominantly white congregations, according to research based on the National Congregations Study.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides resources on racism’s impact on well-being, suggestions on finding a therapist that is culturally competent, and a list of mental health organizations focusing on Black communities.
- Journalist Julia Métraux highlights research explaining why Black Americans may turn to churches rather than mental health agencies.
- Sociologist Brad Fulton’s research suggests there is great potential for Black churches to build collaborations with mental health. Here is a paper he coauthored and another, related article with important quantitative data.
- Understanding generational trauma may be especially important in the Black church.
- Pastors or church leaders can pursue a certificate in mental health first aid from the National Council for Mental Well Being. Mind Your Business has guided 23 pastors through the eight-hour course and is available to help churches find an instructor in their state.
- Mind Your Business also provides consultations for churches.
- A couple months ago, we talked to Dr. Addie Weaver about the unique role churches can play in mental health care for rural communities.
Creating No Judgement Zones
Johnson said that the first step in becoming a church that prioritizes mental health is in acknowledging the need. Then, pastors can begin validating people’s experiences from the pulpit, acknowledging that people struggle with generational trauma, with family trauma, and helping people first just feel heard and understood.
But then they need more tools, said Johnson.
When Mind Your Business first started, they planned a regular church service focused on mental health. First, they shared testimonies, including Johnson’s. Then a therapist preached a sermon, weaving the psychological science into the message.
In response, churches in Cleveland and Canton committed to add programming facilitated by Mind Your Business.
The organization launched what they called No Judgement Zones—support groups designed for people to be honest about their struggles within a safe environment at church, where they previously didn’t feel like they could be. The events are usually themed—depression, anxiety, money, etc.—and inform attendees how to identify signs and symptoms of mental health issues.
The No Judgement Zones, held in Canton, are hosted by Smith. At earlier events, they screened participants for anxiety and depression and then tracked them over time, noticing an improvement in symptoms.
In Cleveland, Mind Your Business hosts events, which feature an educational talk but also include discussion. The church encourages people to bring a family member or friend to talk about different issues from postpartum depression to sexual abuse to church-related trauma. “It gets real,” Johnson said.
The talks focus on giving practical tools for recovery and offer resources for connecting with an individual therapist, if needed. Johnson always offers spiritual support, and not just psychological. “Now we can pray with you, now we can introduce how God can help you,” he said.
Smith also organized a gala last summer—one hopes, the first of many annual events—to raise money for copays or mental health services for the ministry to steward for those in need. With mental health professionals in attendance, Smith spoke to how local agencies can partner with churches.
Ultimately, Mind Your Business is bridging the gap between the black churches and mental health by showing individuals and communities the wholeness of mental and spiritual well-being that God desires for all of us.