Black churches offer first aid for mental health

7/3/2014, 12:13 p.m.

African-American churches nationwide are turning to an innovative training program to equip their congregations with the skills necessary to recognize mental illness and respond to mental health emergencies. The program, Mental Health First Aid, helps people assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help.

“The faith community has always felt a calling to help people but has not always had the tools to assist people struggling with conditions like depression,” said Jermine Alberty, Mental Health First Aid training director for the National Council for Behavioral Health. “Shortly after our first training, we realized that this was a resource the faith community had been missing.”

Alberty says Mental Health First Aid gives compassionate people the practical skills to complement their spiritual gifts.

“Many times people of faith respond to someone with mental illness by saying ‘I’m praying about it,’ but now they can do something about it,’’ he said. “I compare it to seeing a child get hit by a car. You pray, but you also call 911.”

While the program has been offered to a wide spectrum of people in the faith community, some instructors see the training as particularly beneficial to clergy.

“Pastors know how to work with couples to save a marriage or deal with issues of faith, but they usually get very little training about mental health problems,” said Rita McElhany, a certified instructor and mental health promotions coordinator at Missouri Department of Mental Health, which disseminates the program along with the National Council for Behavioral Healthcare.

Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based program that uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help. The training also addresses the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance use disorders.

African-Americans in the U.S. are less likely to receive diagnoses and treatments for their mental illnesses than Caucasian Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African-Americans from accessing care due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid, go to