A New Church Mental Health Center/ A Match Made in Counseling Heaven!
The Grand Opening of a Free Church Affiliated Mental Health Clinic...
The combination of God and therapist is not a mix you hear often. But not so anymore! It may become a more popular noted synthesis, as culture shifts take place. This very paradigm happened here in Harlem on December 15th, 2016 where The HOPE Center (THC) opened its doors to the Harlem Community for a soft opening. On Sunday, April 9, 2017, THC celebrated over three months of free therapeutic services that were offered to the Harlem and the First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) Community. They will continue to offer individual, family and group therapy as well as support and empowerment groups.
Walking into the doors of THC for the grand opening… one was greeted by eager volunteers and staff handing out brochures, intent cards which have a prayer on them with a blank space for innovators to write their intentions on, and a card that reads 5 Ways to Heal on Purpose were given out. A mix of music blasted while people danced in the halls to Frankie Beverly, Frank Sinatra, Mary Mary and some good ‘ole Oldies! A wide spread of healthy food options arrayed the center. The patio area was heavily populated with conversations and congratulations. The power packed day was filled with glee. The staff gave out swag bags with items such as chap stick, stress balls, sanitizers and information about overcoming stress. Everyone was all smiles and filled with excitement while many sported THC Logo T-shirts.
THC is a unique therapeutic counseling center in that:
THC is a by-product of the vision of Pastor Michael Walrond and Pastor Kyndra Frazier of FCBC who wanted a therapeutic center where the community could come and not face stigma or concern themselves with how they would pay for care. A common assumption is that THC is a Christian Counseling Center. The HOPE Center offers Christian counseling as one of the modalities to clients for their choosing. However, the center is not limited to any one style of therapy, and the style of therapy is the choice of the client and practitioner.
Services are completely free.
Clients are stripped of their name as a "client" and are renamed "innovators"; in an effort to decrease stigma with the goal of therapist partnering with innovators to create the journey that they desire ahead.
The operations of THC are completely funded by the donations of the First Corinthian Baptist Church Congregation.
Pastor Frazier who oversees the daily operations of THC, also provides therapy to innovators. She is a full-time associate pastor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at FCBC. Pastor Frazier is a licensed social worker and has an academic and therapeutic background in religious and sexual trauma. Her distinctive background and education bring up many unresolved complexities for individuals who would consider sexual or religious trauma to be a topic that is "hushed" by religious groups and traditional evangelicals. While sexual and religious trauma is an area not traditionally broached in the religious circle it is an area that is necessary to study and research; as it impacts the lives of those many be it interpersonally or intrapersonally. Particularly, it may affect the way those individuals view God. Which brings to the forefront the systems at play; which are the church and mental health. While the overall needs of the Harlem community are varied, one could not deny that free or low-cost services are limited across all mental health platforms.
It is clear that any therapeutic counseling is a wonderful addition to the Harlem population. You can walk around Harlem and see the unmet needs in this area. Yet, we know, low-income individuals are not the first to seek out mental health care (2). In the scholarly, academic, peer-reviewed article by Jennifer Alvidrez, her research findings suggest that having substance abuse issues, previous utilization of mental health services by relatives or friends, as well as beliefs about causes of mental illness were all seen as predictors of mental health seeking behavior i.e. making an appointment to see a clinician. You could imagine that “beliefs about mental illness” was a barrier for many regarding seeking care, and yes your imagination lead you right. From my research both qualitatively/quantitatively as well as anecdotal and empirical I would add stigma as a huge factor as to whether or not individuals seek mental health care.
Alvidrez findings point to a larger issue at hand; which is that many believe if they are not struggling with substance misuse, crying uncontrollably or howling at the moon they do not suffer from a mental illness. What we do know from the research conducted by the national alliance on mental illness (1) is that “approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities." What this tells us is that there are subgroups of the population, of those who experience mental illness.
Some individuals will experience bouts of sadness while others will self-medicate with sex, drugs or alcohol. What may shock the saints (in this case I do not actually mean a Saint like Saint Peter, rather referring to church folk) is that the individuals I just listed are sitting next to you in the same pew. They are the identical individuals who attend church (and may very well be members), go to work, function and carry on what they perceive as normal lives. Some will lash out in anger toward others. They may admit they have a problem or just chalk it up to having a bad day. As a result, they may miss several days of work. Some may cut their wrist before they go to church and again when they come home. Some will participate in the ultimate harm which is to complete suicide. But this should not be shocking. Mental illness is no respecter of person. Which is one reason why none are in a place to judge. And especially why churches should be equipped to be a haven for those experiencing mental health and overall stress. Furthermore, it is why churches opening mental health clinics is as glorious to me as the sounds that cascades from an organ on the morning of worship service at the church house. The deep melodic sound just does something to my soul and comforts me. Very much like the union of churches and mental health. This too one can say is a match made in heaven. I can envision the lives that will be changed through THC and similar programs.
My goal and the goal of all clinicians is to facilitate a process where none of the devastating outcomes listed above i.e. drugs, cutting or suicide are the mechanisms for controlling or coping with pain. But what most therapists practice that the outside world may not be aware of is a process of slowing things down for our clients. I have personally had to grow in this area as a training clinician. The world for the client in many cases is moving too fast. This is the same for the substance misuser as well as the individual who is only dealing with managing the daily grind of life in NYC. While this daily grinder in NYC may not have cry spells spend time howling at the moon, be diagnosed with a mental illness, yet none argue that life just throws curve balls at you. You do not always get to choose your outcome. As my father in law often says "you do not know what you will do in a situation until you are in it. Never say what you won't do"
While resiliency is admirable, reaching out for help and being transparent that you are a person of faith who is having a hard time balancing life is also admirable: and is not mutually exclusive. Admitting that you need help does not take away from who God made you to be, or from who God is. And it most certainly does not make a person weak. In fact I believe it is humbling, and it is taking the care that one needs to take not just to survive but to THRIVE. Kudos to the brethren who can say I need help and even more to the doers who are able to take the leap of faith and actually seek out the help.
Now to the marriage of FCBC and THC, they are partners in care.
This poses an interesting hypothesis of "Will individuals be more likely to seek out mental health services if the location of care is connected to a place of worship?" I am a research scientist by training and profession, if you have not noticed that already by reading this article! I worked for two years looking at major mood and depressive disorders among African Americans in Harlem. I received my Masters of Public Health degree from Columbia University. A large portion of my research while in school and professionally was the combination of faith, mental health, and overall public health. I have shifted careers a bit as now I am studying at Columbia University again, to become a clinical therapist. It is my very nature as a social scientist to ask questions. And now with this glorious grand opening of THC, my interest is piqued all the more.
I would love to hear from you all how the mental health needs of the community around you are or are not being met. Please comment below.
* If you would like to learn more about The HOPE Center, how you can donate to the organization or support please visit the website here www.hopecenterharlem.org
*If you are someone you know if suffering from a mental illness please contact the National Suicide Hotline at Call1-800-273-8255. They are available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Alvidrez, J. Community Ment Health J (1999) 35: 515.