In the News: Harlem psychiatrist helps people of faith tackle a taboo subject--mental health

GHHEditor December 19th, 2015

In a recent Huffington Post article, Psychiatrist Sidney Hankerson tells the story of a conversation he heard when a deacon asked an overburdened parishioner how she was feeling. "I'm too blessed to be stressed!" she responded.

Dr. Hankerson has heard this phrase a lot in his work in the Harlem community as it's "repeated by people of faith like a badge of honor," he writes. The reality, he says, is that we're all stressed. Working long hours, keeping our relationships going, raising kids, caring for aging parents, and paying bills on time are all things that add to the stress of our lives. However, if we stay stressed and don't deal with it, we are more likely to suffer from major depression. Major depression is now the world's number one reason for people to become disabled.

For many of us, churches are the first place we go when we're struggling emotionally. In fact, more people seek help from a pastor during emotional crises than any other health professional. Pastors play a valuable role as counselors and can also make referrals to mental health specialists--which is important, as they are often not trained to handle many of the complexities of mental health issues. Unfortunately, stigma and the fear of mental illness can make people of faith feel they need to suffer in silence instead of seeking treatment. Distrust of mental health professionals is also especially strong in communities of color.

Dr. Hankerson encourages the communities he works with to create church environments where people feel safe to admit their struggles with stress, depression, or substance use. Instead of insisting that we are "too blessed to be stressed," we could guide people to seek care when it is needed. He stresses the following three messages that caring congregations should use to respond to their parishioners:

  1. Depression is a common illness that can be disabling, but can be treated.
  2. Depression is not due to weakness, sin, or lack of faith.
  3. Figuring out how to cut down on stress includes things like prayer, regular exercise, a healthy diet, talk therapy, and medications as needed.

Action steps:

  • If you are suffering from stress and depression, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the Psychology Today websites for resources and health care providers near you.
  • As community members, you can speak with your church leaders or neighborhood employers about the importance of helping congregations or employees learn about mental health.
  • Pastors can speak about mental health from the pulpit and have workshops at their churches.

To read the full article, click here.

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Sidney Hankerson, MD, MBA is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons. His research is focused on reducing stigma and increasing access to treatment for major depression. He has a federally funded study to train African American clergy how to identify and refer depressed community members to mental health care.

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