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This Harlem church is addressing mental health, starting with pastors

A Harlem church is breaking down barriers in getting mental health help by bringing in professionals to assist the underserved community.
Posted at 9:36 PM, Mar 15, 2023

The First Corinthian Baptist Church has stood in Harlem for more than half a century, priding themselves on meeting the needs of the community.

Nearly a decade ago, Senior Pastor Michael A. Walrond noticed one need going unmet: mental illness. So he began addressing his own mental health battles over the pulpit.

"There are again, those moments that are ignited by grief and sorrow and trauma and disappointment and lead to depression," Walrond said. "Grief is draining."

"There was a lot of cheering and maybe even relief around hearing your pastor from the pulpit talk about the things that you perhaps deal with or they perhaps deal with on a daily basis," said Dr. Lena Green, executive director of The Hope Center.

As more and more members expressed their mental health needs, the church brought on a clinician, but leadership quickly learned they'd need something more.

"He was standing at the front of the church, and someone came in and whispered that they were here to see the therapist," Green said. "It was at that moment that he thought, 'You know what? Perhaps we need a standalone facility.'"

Using donations from the church and philanthropists, they built the Hope Center a close distance away from the chapel, a separate mental health facility offering free services with licensed therapists.

Church members stand.

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"All of the staff members have been trained in what we call mental health first aid," Green said. "They are aware of when someone comes in, and they are in need of services that they know where to send them and had them, sort of, make a warm handoff."

Green says they are providing an open door to two communities that have not always had the help of mental health professionals, for one reason or another: Black people and Christians.

"When we think about communities of color or even low-income communities around the country, oftentimes those resources are limited," Green said. "So there are very few places that you can actually go and find free mental health services. They're pretty much nonexistent."

While the barriers to receiving treatment in underserved communities remain, research shows stigma among people of faith may be starting to lessen.

According to a recent survey from Lifeway Research, 60% of Protestant pastors say they speak on chronic mental illness at least once a year — an increase in recent years.

Nine in 10 say local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support for individuals with mental illness. Sometimes that support comes through programs such as Celebrate Recovery or other types of counseling, and other times, it comes from the pastor's own transparency, with 26% saying they struggled with mental illness themselves.

"Those kinds of conversations — especially from faith leaders, where we know that there's a lot of power — there really was just the catalyst for, 'Oh, my gosh. If he can talk about his story, I can talk about mine too,'" Green said.