07/27/2006 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

More Than Demons at Work in Mental Illness

Recently I was engaged in the mundane activity of simply channel surfing. I was too tired to read and not interested in watching television, I was surfing for the pure sport of it. As I passed one of the local cable channels in Oakland, CA, I heard something that caused great concern.

The Rev. Dr. Lorenzo Carlisle speaking to his predominantly African American congregation and to the television audience stated that those who may be experiencing mental health issues know that such problems are not a sickness but rather a demonic spirit. He went on to further suggest that such problems could be alleviated almost immediately in "the name of Jesus!"

What about the poor soul whose mental health problems did not go away? Was it simply a lack of faith? Was the demonic spirit more powerful than their prayers? Or could it be that such analysis falls woefully short of the problem?

I have nothing against Dr. Carlisle personally. I am sure that he is an honorable man who believes in the power of his conviction, and he is not alone in his theological approach. In fact, this belief remains common in many churches and the result could very easily cause someone great harm.

Mental health, as an issue, permeates all sectors of society. The African American community, like other negative social/psychological forces, is disproportionately impacted. African Americans account for approximately 25 percent of the reported mental health needs in this country while only comprising 12 percent of the population.

Mental health challenges are compounded in the African American community by a justifiable and historical distrust of the dominant culture, along with social factors such as race, poverty, etc. I grew up in a house where it was widely believed that African Americans did not commit suicide. "The gun just went off unexpectedly in Uncle Smitty's hand," so the story goes.

Does Dr. Carlisle believe that those who may have been watching his televised service, suppressing years of mental and physical abuse, living in urban areas where violence and drugs are prevalent, or dealing with the daily pressures of life can turn it around so easily? This approach is not only shortsighted but can lead one further down the abyss of despair.

Those who may be suffering from mental health issues may find the church as being the only "safe" place in their life. Traditionally, the church has been the place of hope and healing, especially within the African American community. And the pastor holds a tremendous amount of trust within that community.

But too often, the church leadership fails to grant permission to its parishioners to seek help from professionals outside the church, forcing many parishioners to try to handle difficult, and sometimes insurmountable, problems on their own, which amounts to their suffering in silence.
Churches across the country has people sitting in the pews each Sunday, suffering from myriad mental health issues. They are trapped by the feeling of shame and inaction, which are reinforced by weekly homilies.

Pastoral good intentions notwithstanding, the feeling of worthlessness, a common symptom of depression, is only enhanced by the parishioners frustration from the failure of a God-inspired cure and the need to keep such information concealed from family and friends.

As a pastor, I believe that spirituality is a key ingredient to positive mental health, but that means the church should be working in tandem with mental health professionals and not offering simplistic remedies. More and more pastors must join forces with mental health professionals. This is particularly important for communities of color, who tend to have different attitudes about mental health from that of the dominant culture.

How might African American pastors work with mental health professionals to assist in helping parishioners and the community at-large to remove the stigma of mental health disease? The black church must assume a supportive rather than adversarial role if the portion of the African American community that lives with mental health disease is to liberate itself from the prison of hopelessness.