As an ordained deacon, Laverne Williams noticed in the 1990s that many congregation members at Black churches often went to clergy members for help with mental health issues. But honest conversations about mental health in churches were not regular occurrences then, and health was a “very small part of the curriculum,” she said.

Williams, a social worker based in North Jersey, was in a unique position to address this gap because of her familiarity with church language and customs. So in 1995, she secured a grant from the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and produced a video about how faith communities have or have not been helpful to people with mental health issues.

“I looked around, and there was not a lot of language about this pertaining to African American communities,” she said.

In 2005, Williams founded PEWS (Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality), a program that provides training and education to pastors, deacons and church ministries to address the stigma of mental health. In the last 16 years, Williams has worked with more than 100 faith communities and educated more than 8,000 participants and their families.

Mental health in Black communities continues to be an area of concern for public health experts. About one in five adults in America experiences mental health issues each year, regardless of race, but Black Americans use mental health services at about half the rate of white Americans. These issues have only intensified during the pandemic. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June showed that 15% of Black respondents seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, compared with 8% of white respondents. Nearly half of Black respondents also reported more than one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

Over the last year, churches around the country have taken similar approaches to PEWS. Churches are an effective contact point for raising mental health awareness because of their influence in Black communities. According to the Pew Research Center, 91% of Black Americans say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.

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During the pandemic, Williams has been continuing her work through Zoom sessions with churches all over the state. In the sessions, she shows the video, shares an overview of what mental illness is, and fields questions.

“I’m just trying to get people familiar with the language and treatment options,” Williams said. “Because people go to their faith communities for help and healing.”

In Williams’ video, pastors and mental health experts discuss how Black Americans have dealt with the stigma of mental illness, seen by many in their communities as a “white man’s disease,” which prevents them from seeking help. One religious leader stressed the importance of “removing the notion that mental illness is the result of the presence of sin.”

The videos have been especially helpful during a year of virtual services, which have caused people to feel more disconnected from their communities, said the Rev. Eva C. Foster, who leads Union Baptist Church in Irvington, N.J.

“Members of the church are remote from each other,” said Foster, who brought Williams in for a Zoom session with her congregation last month. “The PEWS program and what it represents kind of fills in that emotional gap that is missing with physical contact.”

Foster said that many people feel most comfortable talking to their church leaders about emotional issues they may be going through, but pastors and deacons may not be equipped to advise someone on mental health issues. Instead, they may recommend prayer or a particular Scripture reading they may find inspiring, she said.

“I’m not diminishing this by any means,” Foster said. “That is wonderful, until the person exhausts that and they realize that there is something emotional going on that requires more than a reading or a prayer, something that requires medical attention. The pastor, the deacon is offering all they have.”

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On a recent Thursday evening, Williams hosted an educational session on Zoom for the women’s ministry at Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Hackensack. Praise music played as participants logged on, and Pamela McDowell-Sallie, the assistant pastor and adviser to the women’s ministry, encouraged everyone to get comfortable on their couches before the presentation started.

Over the next two hours, Williams shared information about the science of mental health and how to get in contact with suicide hotlines or crisis text lines.

“Mental illness can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain or situational factors such as a traumatic event,” she told the gathering. “It can range from mild to severe, but it can also change in severity over time.”

Williams explained that mental health issues can affect the four “L’s” in someone’s life: how they live, how they love, how they learn, and how they laugh. She also identified some of the signs and symptoms of emotional challenges, such as delusions, hallucinations, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and loss of interest in activities, and stressed that it’s common for people to experience these differently.

Williams also explained the overlap between spiritual wellness and emotional wellness. When people’s emotional, financial, social, spiritual, physical and environmental factors are working in tandem with each other, “that’s when [they] are at their best,” she said.

“Faith communities and service providers should learn to work together,” Williams said. “Clergy should have a better understanding of treatment options. Emotional wellness and spiritual wellness … should be working together to help each individual reach the highest degree of wellness.”

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Because COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, the Mental Health Association in New Jersey launched an initiative this year to address behavioral health inequities. The initiative will build upon the work that Williams has already done, said Jaime Angelini, MHANJ’s program director.

“The PEWS program has been with us for a long time,” Angelini said. “We’re focusing on outreach to community leaders we are already connected with, who will then connect us with others. It’s been really helpful to embrace what’s already there.”

Williams said that work surrounding mental health in Black communities is especially critical now because the pandemic has exposed “underlying systemic racism and health care disparities that already existed.”

Many people mistrust hospitals, doctors, law enforcement officers, and mental health professionals, or are not well-informed about treatment options, she said. “With food insecurities, substance abuse and domestic violence on the rise at alarming rates, it’s important that we are able to provide support to the community from people they trust.”