Since 2012, Pastor Walter Lanier has led the MIRACLE (Mental Illness Raising Awareness with Church & Community Leaders Everywhere) initiative in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Founded in the basement of Lanier’s church, MIRACLE creates comfortable spaces for discussion of mental illness in primarily Black churches. The group grew out of a concern that people with mental illness were being marginalized by church leaders and congregants. Here, Lanier discusses the different challenges that mental illness presents for Black Americans and other minorities — and how churches in any community are often an important link to mental health care.
Q: Could you please explain in brief why there’s perhaps a greater stigma around mental health in Black and other minority communities in the U.S.?
A: Of course, when we talk about stigma and mental illness, the stigma exists in all communities. In communities of color or “minority” communities, that stigma can be exacerbated for a variety of reasons. First, in cultures that have been historically and systemically oppressed, we have not had the luxury of weakness. We have a history of overcoming and surviving adversity. In this setting, acknowledging mental illness could be seen as a sign of weakness, and this is a luxury that we could sometimes not afford on the journey of perseverance. Second, in some, if not many, of our faith traditions, mental illness was sometimes characterized as either a lack of faith (“God will fix it”) or a function of spiritual sickness. Thus, to acknowledge mental illness was to open up to the shame of either not trusting God or being spiritually sick.
Q: Related to that, what strategies have you found most effective in breaking those stigmas, whether for people with mental illness and their family members or for those in the community?
A: The absolute most effective strategy I have found for decreasing stigma and raising awareness is to regularly share narratives and stories about mental illness. Normalize talking about it, sharing about it, getting educated about it and taking other similar steps. I incorporate discussion in announcements, in sermons and in discussions of current events. We also have a quarterly Mental Health Moment during our worship. I have watched this be transformative in our community. The more we talk about it, we bring a hidden subject into the light and make it easier for others to share, to listen and to learn.
Q: In talking about solutions, what role do churches play? How do they reach people in communities that perhaps traditional medical providers don’t?
A: Faith communities are just that — they are communities. And healthy communities have the ability to support one another and to shape culture. I have seen research showing that when people want to disclose that they have a mental illness, they often want to disclose that to their faith leaders. A leader has an opportunity to be very helpful and loving and listening. But there’s also the opportunity to do harm. For example, telling a member that they can just pray away a mental illness or that the mental illness is a function of spiritual sickness. Faith leaders that are reasonably well equipped can create space for people to share. This is very important.
Tips for deconstructing stigmas.
Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage — a negative stereotype. Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are common.
Stigma can lead to discrimination. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding you because of your mental illness. You may even judge yourself.
Here are some ways you can deal with stigma:
- Get treatment. Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Treatment can provide relief by identifying what’s wrong and reducing symptoms that interfere with your life. Remember, mental health is just as important as your physical health.
- Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Stigma doesn’t just come from others. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal weakness or that you should be able to control it without help. Seeking counseling, educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others who have mental illness can help you overcome self-judgment.
- Don’t isolate yourself. If you have a mental illness, you may be reluctant to tell anyone about it. Your family, friends, clergy, or members of your community can only offer you support if they know about your mental illness. Reach out to people you trust for the compassion, support and understanding you need.
- Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” say “I have schizophrenia.”
- Join a support group. Some local and national groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — and some state and federal agencies — offer local programs and internet resources that help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their families and the general public.
- Speak out against stigma. Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters to the editor or on the internet. Your actions can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness.