Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Black folks are making progress with mental health. Yes, there is still stigma but it is slowly being chipped away by cultural and media forces that are gaining momentum and strength with each new moment of public transparency (Kid Cudi, Ricky Williams), each honest and humane depiction of mental illness (The Secret She Kept, Lila & Eve), every Twitter or Facebook chat. Along the winding road of progress though is the intersection of faith and mental health/illness. And even for those individuals who might not practice any faith tradition at all, they still must deal within a culture that is steeped in the Judeo-Christian beliefs of generations. A new book by theologian and ordained minister Dr. Monica Coleman is an invaluable resource for confronting and navigating that inevitable intersection.
The book’s title is itself something of a tour-de-force.
In 10 words, she slings a stone at two Goliaths that have taunted and intimidated the Black community for decades: the thought that faith and any kind of mental disturbance are inherently antithetical, that the presence of one automatically and decisively negates the presence of the other; and the stereotype that Black women—especially Black women—don’t experience depression. This is the kind of book she’s written. It has the potential to break down walls and open up minds, if we let it.
It might be hard for some to truly appreciate the significance of a book like this, but most black women will get it. It’s difficult for a lot of us to admit to having a headache, let alone a serious and periodically debilitating illness like bipolar depression. But Dr. Coleman doesn’t just announce the outcome of her many years of struggle and suffering; she opens the door and invites us in to hear about it firsthand. Reading about how much she loved her grandmother and the imprint this matriarch’s death left on her life is immediately familiar. Unfortunately, equally familiar is sitting with her through the deep pain and disorientation of a shocking sexual assault. Both events were catalysts of her progression into sadness, depression, and ultimately bipolar depression.
The tension many African Americans face when dealing with matters of the mind and expectations tied to how one expresses faith, particularly Christianity, in the world at large, is a significant issue and one that is worth hammering out for oneself in the most authentic way possible. Faith is not something that should just be abandoned but too many take this route when biblical text cannot seemingly be reconciled with life experience. People need to be able to hash out their questions, doubts, and fears within congregational life without judgment, and there has to be an acknowledgment that much of the problem stems from cultural overlays of meaning onto the words of scripture. Dr. Coleman deals with this tension head-on. She talks about some people who were ‘unhelpful’ when she attempted to discuss her situation and find resources and help, including the woman who told her she needed Jesus.
Dr. Coleman and I waded into these deep waters during our recent conversation about her book and the themes it implicates. We started by discussing her thoughts on what churches can and should do to be a resource in the areas of mental health and illness, and faith.
OB: What do you think the church is afraid of when it comes to mental health? Why do you think there’s so much reticence and hesitation to really deal with this issue?
Dr. MC: I think the church’s hesitation reflects the stigma in wider society. The stigma is decreasing but there’s still this stigma about what it means to be crazy; and we still think of mental health and mental illness as people being crazy, and that this is some really bad thing. Something uncontrollable, something unmanageable, and something you should be able to prevent. So some of it is we need more education about mental health. No one thinks [in this way] about diabetes or heart disease but because we can’t see it in the same way…I think that’s where the resistance is. And then I think we have some theology to go along with that; we have some beliefs that further stigmatize mental health. But I don’t think it’s because the church is afraid of it as much as people are very unreflective about what they say. I think a lot of people—even ministers—just say what we’ve heard [rather than] thinking, do I really believe this? So there’s not that there’s a major resistance to mental health more than other issues but perpetuating ideas that we’ve heard that are incredibly painful and unhelpful for people living with mental health issues.
OB: What do you think needs to happen and how do we bridge these divides? People are hurting, and people are walling themselves in and walling themselves off on this issue. Do you think education is the key? Where do we start?
Dr. MC: There are two things I would say. In terms of individuals, most people have figured out that if their church isn’t helpful, they don’t go to that church. They literally either stop attending or whether they’re conscious of it or not they find extra-ecclesiastic resources for [consolation] and healing, be it therapy or music or good friends. They find other ways and other places outside of the church even if their church is important to them and their faith life is important to them , they say, ‘If you’re not going to be helpful to me, then I’ll get my help somewhere else.’ … [H]opefully this book is one place where people can find some help. But in terms of what churches can do, a big part of making a difference in churches is that clergy don’t say certain things that are unhelpful, that clergy talk about mental health like they talk about other health challenges: not as things of sin, things that you can cast out, things that you should be too blessed to have. But talk about mental health in the same way [they talk about other conditions]. I think even very educated, seminary-trained clergy still walk away with the idea that [people need to come to them] as compared to, I could be talking about this as a public health issue, as a societal issue that effects people in my congregation. These are things we should be talking about communally in order to make churches welcoming and safe places.
OB: There was a part in your book where you talked about struggling to find the language for yourself to really understand what you were experiencing and how to talk to other people about it. Why is this important, and what can we tell people about how to do that for themselves?
Dr. MC: [I]n the face of things that are traumatic and painful people lose words, you lose language. You think, that’s that bad thing that happened to somebody else, not me. So you can’t piece together your own experience. That’s where it matters when other folks have a language. So [if] this is one of the things that churches talk about then they have a language that you might see yourself in. [Someone might] read a scripture and you say, ‘Wow that’s how I’m feeling.’ …[P]eople begin to find the language that works for them. It’s also important that we realize there are ways of experiencing God and ways of experiencing the world that are non-linguistic. I talk in the book about how important dance was. Or for some people laying on of hands. We don’t always have to be linguistic. There are other ways we can communicate.
See Part 2 for the continuation and conclusion of my conversation with Dr. Coleman on mental health. We get into grief, the StrongBlackWoman identity, and her thoughts on how taking care of each other can be a saving grace for us all.