The Role of the Church in Improving Mental Wellness
How Hurdle’s partnership with D.C.’s East Friendship Baptist Church is breaking the silence about mental health in the faith-based community
Discussions about mental health in America are evolving. There is a mental health crisis growing in the wake of Covid-19. This ‘long tail’ of the pandemic is forcing the country to grapple with a surging demand for mental health services. Parallel to this, there is a budding racial awakening, an acknowledgment that racism is a public mental health crisis. At the heart of this perfect storm? Underserved Black and Brown communities living in mental health deserts. In a special series, Hurdle offers up three examples of how its community- and faith-based partnerships can help quell this perfect storm, for such a time as this.
From the pulpit to the minibar, the spiritual counselors of America’s most marginalized communities have the ability to expedite care and access to mental health services like the ones Hurdle provides. This is why we enlisted the help of Washington, D.C.’s East Friendship Baptist Church early on in our company’s launch. With their help, we could reduce the stigma of mental illness and open up access to culturally competent therapy, starting with their congregation.
For part one of this series, we sat down with the leaders of East Friendship — Pastor Melvin Milton Maxwell and Rev. William Lee — to talk about the important role the church plays in America when it comes to meeting the mental health needs of marginalized communities, and the Black community specifically.
Can you give our readers some background on East Friendship Baptist Church’s unique approach to mental health and the partnership with Hurdle?
Rev. Lee: I serve the church in a capacity that is specific to congregational care, pastoral care and counseling, and mental health. My doctoral work is in Soul Care and I focus specifically on nurturing the mental health of African American church leaders. When I joined the church six years ago, I was brought on by Pastor Maxwell as a part of his efforts to reframe the church’s entire ministry around “Four Cups of Seder”: Know God, Find Freedom, Discover Purpose, and Make A Difference. Under this reframing, East Friendship deployed a number of health and wellness ministries that I oversee as the Minister Advisor.
This reframing positioned East Friendship to serve as one of the first test sites to use Hurdle’s (then Henry Health) teletherapy platform. The church donated money to pay for therapy sessions for members of our congregation. The sessions were eventually made available for families, however, we initially focused on the men of our church and community. There is a health crisis in full bloom for Black men in America. Black men have the shortest lifespans of any American demographic. Even before Covid-19 killed many young Black men with deadly efficiency, the unrelenting stress of fighting systemic racism was altering our body’s normal functioning. So, when Hurdle approached East Friendship with their pilot for Black men, given that mental health was already ‘baked into’ our ministry, it was an immediate natural fit.
Then, last year, following the murder of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests, Hurdle therapists held a virtual focus group with close to 30 men from our congregation. The session was intended to be 90 minutes but lasted over four hours. We dove deep into issues of systemic racism, along with discussions about the impact of social isolation as a result of the pandemic. The need for this kind of facilitated dialogue is great. We set up a series of similar forums for the men on a bi-weekly basis and held around ten sessions.
How has East Friendship’s partnership with Hurdle been able to help meet the mental health needs of your community?
Rev. Lee: In America, the church has long been a conduit to care for underserved or marginalized communities. Oftentimes, religious leaders in these communities are recognized for their place not just as spiritual counselors, but also as channels for their congregants’ emotional and psychological needs. In any given week, Pastor Maxwell will counsel 7–15 clients, sometimes more. The Black church in America, especially, has served a key role as an informal social service provider throughout its history. As such, our efforts to raise awareness and encourage members to seek help can be life-changing. However, we must do so with great diligence. The racism that the Black community has had to face in America’s medical system is not just in the history books — Marion Sims, Henrietta Lacks, or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Every day, Black Americans have their pain denied, their conditions misdiagnosed, and necessary treatment withheld. As such, there is skepticism and distrust of therapy. And, in cases where black people seek treatment, they may face barriers such as cost, transportation, or disempowerment if they’re seen by practitioners who don’t understand their experience as people of color.
The Hurdle platform provides a safe space to refer our congregants to. It gives our church a vehicle to deal with emotional and familial issues in a way that honors our congregation’s culture. Hurdle’s therapists do not ignore what it means for them to be Black in America. Our ability to confidently connect members of our congregation with Hurdle’s professionals means that they have one less invisible barrier to navigate on their road to health. And as such, we are able to foster a healthier community.
Oftentimes, churches are hesitant to refer their community members beyond the walls of the church for mental health help. Why is that?
Pastor Maxwell: Too often we have attempted to layer a spiritual or salvation experience on top of trauma, or atop a highly dysfunctional life experience that started in broken childhood and family systems. We needed a more holistic approach to discipleship, healing, and empowerment. One cannot get to a healthy spiritual life without bringing about a stable and healthy emotional and mental state. A community’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health must function hand-in-glove in order to strengthen the overall community. A total engagement of the families and individuals in the community to value their mental, emotional, and spiritual health is not only the responsibility of the church but the entire community and its leaders.
Hurdle helps us to move our community and members of our congregation closer to true freedom.
What is needed in order for more churches and faith-based centers to replicate East Friendship’s approach to mental health?
Rev. Lee: I believe we must start at the top. We must clarify the perception of mental illness amongst clergy and spiritual leaders, and address their own personal mental health needs. Their buy-in is critical to destigmatizing mental health from the pulpit, and to addressing their own mental health needs and wellness journey. The church cannot afford to hush the stories of depression, anxiety, and stress any longer, because we’re all hurting. If leaders of the church begin to talk about mental health from the pulpit, we can move beyond the stigma, hold honest conversations and promote true healing.
Pastor Maxwell: As Hurdle’s network of therapists trained in cultural humility expands, there is great value in creating a formal bridge with diverse faith groups by way of a ‘Soul Care Manager.’ Someone in this role would link faith groups to Hurdle, driving more clients through Hurdle’s virtual doors to do the therapy they so desperately need. Many pastors do not do pastoral care and counseling, nor do they have a sound referral system. Hurdle can fill that gap and become a central part of how churches and other faith-based centers deploy mental healthcare.
Kevin Dedner, MPH serves as Founder and CEO of Hurdle (formerly Henry Health). Hurdle is mental healthcare for invisible barriers. As the leading culturally intentional mental health provider, Hurdle provides a comprehensive suite of mental health services and self-mastery tools to employers and payers to meet the needs of their employees and members.