Carla Debnam, LCPC, is on a mission to improve mental health in the Morning Star Baptist Church congregation, where she serves as first lady, and the general public. (Photo courtesy of Morning Star Baptist Church)

By Marnita Coleman,
Special to AFRO

Recently the AFRO spoke with mental health professional Dr. Carla Debnam, LCPC, founder and executive director of The Renaissance Center, a Christian-based counseling center.  

The operation is part of the outreach ministry of Morning Star Baptist Church in Woodlawn, Md. where she is the first lady. Gorgeous gray hair is a clear indication of the wisdom that flows from this clinician. Debnam shares nuggets on mental health therapy that will encourage those on the fence to forge towards their mental health goals. After all, mental health is one of the hottest topics in today’s society. 

AFRO: Would you please define mental health?

DR. DEBNAM: Mental health is just being able to make decisions that are in your best interest. It’s really holistic. It’s about proper rest, diet, environment, spiritual practices, the people in your life, reducing stressors, and choosing a support system if you don’t already have one. It’s about having things in place that would promote your health. 

If you are in a good mental state, hopefully, the choices you make are going to be better and more life-giving than the opposite. That’s what the healthy piece is– making better choices. I like the line in Kierra Sheard’s song titled, “It Keeps Happening,” where she sings, “I’m making better decisions. It keeps happening for me.”

AFRO: How did The Renaissance Center serve the community during the pandemic?

DR. DEBNAM: During the pandemic, The Renaissance Center introduced mental health therapy to Baltimore City and Baltimore County residents through free counseling sessions. This was the first time people were open to utilizing services, and having it free was a bridge for them to continue. Many stayed engaged. 

Via Zoom, we offered grief support for women who had lost loved ones, which was well received and will continue in fall.

In partnership with Morning Star Baptist Church, we held three or four stress management sessions for first responders and essential workers–allowing them to share their concerns and work with the public. 

Also, sometimes churches had a need for resources so we went out with our booklets and information about therapy and counseling to different church locations, as missions and outreach. 

AFRO: What are the demographics that are likely to seek counseling from your facility?

DR. DEBNAM: The predominant population is African American, 80 percent women, 35 and up. We get many inquiries for teenagers and some young adults from their parents. But mostly it’s 35 and older that have families, employment, and other life stressors. Many seniors started coming during this season because of losing some of their family and friends and finding themselves alone and isolated for the first time. With demographics, the stigma keeps people away, they’ll say ‘I don’t do therapy, I don’t have those kinds of problems.’

AFRO: Why do you think mental health therapy is taboo in the Black community?

DR. DEBNAM: We were taught to keep secrets and family traditions by this famous line, ‘What goes on in the house, stays in the house.’ A lot of people grew up with that as the family mantra. Everybody kept secrets. They didn’t call them secrets, but nobody ever talked about them so that’s what made it a stigma. 

Carla Debnam, LCPC, is on a mission to improve mental health in the Morning Star Baptist Church congregation, where she serves as first lady, and the general public. (Photo courtesy of Morning Star Baptist Church)

And then the distrust of the medical professionals. We heard a lot about how African Americans were abused in the medical system which did not stop with physical illnesses but even with mental distress and disorders. We were diagnosed with certain disorders more than average, among other populations. 

It was cultural, where African Americans just don’t trust outside of their support system, even outside of their family. So, that’s what has kept us from it. But now, the cat is out of the bag, “Pandora’s box” has been opened, and all the other analogies you can use. It’s like the floodgates have opened and people are saying what worked before isn’t enough. The family secrets can’t be kept in the house anymore.

AFRO: Is pairing the Black church with clinical professionals biblical?

DR. DEBNAM: That is a good question because it’s something people struggle with. We feel like we can ‘take it to the Lord’ and leave it there. Many preachers traditionally call the congregation to the altar to lay their burdens down. Sometimes people feel like that is enough. Coming to the altar, prayer service, and worship and praise are only a part of the healing process. You also have to avail yourself to help outside of that. 

In church, when you’re dealing with conflict you take it to that person, and if that person isn’t agreeable, you take it to the elders. It allows people in your space to know about your situation so you can resolve the conflict. That’s counseling. In the bible, the people always sought prophets for information. They were kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m going to fight this battle. What are your thoughts?’ Even Moses had people from whom he sought wisdom. Prov. 11:14 says, ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.’

AFRO: When should someone actually seek a therapist?

DR. DEBNAM: I would say if you feel like you’re not yourself with your usual ways of coping. For instance, you’re not eating as you used to and you seem to have lost your appetite. Over a period of time, these are symptoms that you should be concerned about. So, not sleeping, not eating, overeating, sleeping too much, and making poor decisions are indicators. This is when you should look into therapy.

AFRO: Is there anything coming up that you’d like to share with the city?

DR. DEBNAM: The Renaissance Center Chat will start again on the second Tuesday in September via Facebook Live. It’s just an hour-long program. Usually, we take topics that are important to the community. Back in March, we did women’s reproductive health and mental health. We talked about trauma and resilience, the connection between the two, and what it takes. We’ve had men and mental health segments. Some of the topics we talk about are really interesting and challenging things that nobody talks about because they’re all secret.

For other events, please log onto the Morning Star Baptist Church Facebook page.

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here!