Pastor Frankey Grayton and Mental Health First Aid course instructor Tamara Warren-Chinyani quiz church participants on mental health material.

Congregants of Edgewood Baptist Church in Southeast, recently participated in a groundbreaking training program to teach parishioners to recognize and respond to signs of mental illness. Mental Health First Aid, an 8-hour course managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, was designed to provide faith-based communities the practical skills necessary to assist those struggling with mental illness.

With one in three African Americans in need of mental health care, receiving it, and a lack of diagnoses and treatment have left millions in need. In addition to a lack of diagnoses, African Americans are less likely than other groups to start or continue treatment once a condition is detected.

According to Tamara Warren Chinyani, Ph.D., a Mental Health First Aid course instructor, the training addresses cultural biases that may prevent African Americans from seeking help. “African Americans tend to turn to family, religious, and social communities for emotional support, but sometimes involving a health care professional is necessary,” she said. “Churches are a starting point within the African-American community and often serve as the first point of contact for health concerns.

“We are not asking members to become clinicians, but are giving them tools so that they have an awareness of signs and symptoms and become the catalyst for getting others to the treatment they need,” Warren-Chinyani said.

For Warren-Chinyani, who has worked as a mental health advocate and educator for more than 15 years, the stigmas attached to mental illness among African Americans are reminiscent of those faced during the 1990s with HIV awareness. “No one would have believed that much of the stigma attached to HIV testing and treatment would be removed as a result of church outreach.

The church was critical in lessening it by offering free testing, counseling, assistance with medical services, and additional outreach and support. That same opportunity exists with mental health,” she said.

Edgewood Baptist Church Pastor Frankey Grayton said the support of clergy often gives a person permission to ask for the assistance they need and in the process, gain a degree of hope that recovery is possible. “I had a counseling session with one person and realized after prayer that it was negligent of me to ignore that additional mental health issues needed to be addressed.

The average person does not know what to do when they encounter someone who may be struggling with mental health concerns. If a person enters the church injured or bleeding, we would not let them walk back out onto the street without treating them or ensuring they had care. We are determined to address mental illness in the same manner,” Grayton said.

Edgewood Baptist Church follows several other churches nationally, in offering the Mental Health First Aid course, including the neighboring First Baptist Church, pastored by Dr. Harold Brooks Jr. ‘It is the duty of the Church to address needs and suffering. Jesus fed the people, then healed them. Jesus was not only there to meet spiritual needs, but also the physical and mental needs of those suffering,” said Grayton, who points to a considerable increase in the frequency of mental health issues in the D.C. metropolitan area. While he cannot conclusively tie the increase to the closing of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, he said the closure has prompted churches to fill the void.

Filling the void, is precisely what led worshipper Towanna Cooper to attend the course. “It was important through this training for me to get an understanding of different types of mental illness, including how to recognize symptoms over periods of time. I believe the African-American community is largely overlooking a lot of cases by not knowing. As a church, we can help others by being alert and ready,” Cooper said.

Mental Health First Aid is an international evidence-based education program designed to improve participants’ knowledge and modify their attitudes and perceptions about mental health-related issues including how to respond to individuals experiencing one or more acute mental health crises, or are in the early stages of one or more chronic mental health problems (i.e., depressive, anxiety, and or psychotic disorders, which may occur with substance abuse).

Organizations seeking additional information may visit Chinyani Communications at chincom.org.