Black church leaders are coordinating sermons on mental health this weekend

Dozens of pastors plan to deliver the same message from their pulpits this weekend.

Their goal? To part the sea of ​​stigma surrounding mental health services and refer parishioners to care.

“We’ve often talked about physical healing in our church, but we haven’t talked about mental health healing,” said the Rev. Leslie Sanders of Hope Presbyterian Church, 1354 W. 61st St., in West Englewood. “Beyond our relationship with God, it’s important to reach out to try to get professional help to navigate these waters.”

On Sunday, Sanders said he plans to speak about mental health as part of his regular 11 a.m. Sunday service. So will 80 other pastors at black churches around Chicago as they speak to their congregations.

The coordinated announcements come ahead of World Mental Health Day on Monday — and amid concern about the suicide rate among black Cook County residents.

Black residents accounted for 94 of the 432 suicides in Cook County in 2020, a 65% increase from 2019, when there were 57 suicides among black residents. In 2021, black residents again committed 94 suicides, according to data from the Cook County medical examiner, and this year there were 69 suicides among black Cook County residents.

“This is an opportunity for faith leaders to partner with mental health professionals to address the growing mental health crisis in our community,” said the Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave. in Austin.

The Arkansas-born pastor attributes the crisis to several factors, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closing of mental health clinics to the instability caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

“The global pandemic has put the mental health pandemic on steroids,” Acre said. He will speak at the 10 a.m. service at his church.

Reverend Ira Acree at Greater St. Bible Church. John, 1256 N. Waller Ave. in Austin, where he will speak Sunday about the importance of mental health during the church’s regular 10 a.m. service. Acre is among about 80 ministers speaking on the topic ahead of World Mental Health Day on Monday.

Anthony Vasquez/Sun-Times

Pastors flocked last week to Pearl’s Place Restaurant, 3901 S. Michigan Ave. in Bronzeville to break bread and coordinate their mental health messages.

They heard from three black mental health experts who answered questions about stigma, specific resources and general advice.

Sanders organized the effort with Cook County Board Commissioner Dennis Deer and Evolent Health, a health care company. The South Side pastor has worked with the group before to reach black congregations, specifically urging them to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Black church leaders listen to mental health experts speak at Pearl's Place Restaurant 3901 S. Michigan Ave.  in Bronzeville last Thursday.

Black church leaders listen to mental health experts speak at Pearl’s Place Restaurant 3901 S. Michigan Ave. in Bronzeville last Thursday.

Among the experts who spoke to the ministers was Donald Dew, president of Habilitative Systems, a nonprofit social services and behavioral health organization.

Most of the questions from the ministers, Du said, were about building trust and destigmatisation.

In the black community, Dew said, the stigma around mental health stems in part from not wanting to be perceived as unable to handle responsibility. Instead, he added, sufferers of mental health problems are simply told to deal with them.

“We’re told to step up, but who are you talking to about how to do that?” Du asked.

Dew and the others gave ministers information on a host of resources, from hotlines to free counseling services, that they could promote in their Sunday sermons.

Mental health experts (from left) Adrienne McCue, Donald Dew and Obari Cartman at Pearl's Place Restaurant, 3901 S. Michigan Ave., in Bronzeville.

Mental health experts (from left) Adrienne McCue, Donald Dew and Obari Cartman at Pearl’s Place Restaurant, 3901 S. Michigan Ave., in Bronzeville.

Phalese Binion is president of the Westside Ministers Coalition, a group of about 25 churches. She and five of her members attended the planning meeting last weekend, and she is scheduled to speak at Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church, 2223 W. 79th St., at 11 a.m. Sunday.

“When it’s a crisis, whatever counseling you get can be lifesaving,” said Binion, who preaches at several churches in Chicago. “This information is invaluable.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via America Reporta nonprofit journalism program that aims to strengthen the newspaper’s coverage of South and West Side communities.

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