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Black church leaders coordinate this weekend’s sermons around mental health

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Dozens of pastors are planning to sound the same message from their pulpits his weekend.

Their goal? To part the sea of ​​stigma around mental health services and steer parishioners into care.

“We have often talked about physical healing in our church but we have not talked about mental health healing,” said 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 and get professional help to navigate these waters.”

On Sunday, Sanders plans to talk about mental health as part of his regular 11 am Sunday services. So will 80 other pastors at Black churches around Chicago, as they speak to their congregations.

The coordinated messages come in advance of World Mental Health Day on Monday — and amid concern about the suicide rate among Black residents of Cook County.

Black residents accounted for 94 of 432 suicides in Cook County in 2020, a 65% increase over 2019, when there were 57 suicides among Black residents. In 2021, Black residents again accounted for 94 suicides, according to Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office data; and there have 69 suicides among Black residents of Cook County this year so far.

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

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

“The global pandemic put the mental health pandemic on steroids,” Acree said. He’ll speak at the 10 am service at his church.

Rev.  Ira Acree inside Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave.  in Austin.

Rev. Ira Acree inside Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave. in Austin, where he will speaking Sunday about the importance of mental health during the church’s regular 10 am service. Acree is among about 80 ministers speaking on that topic on Sunday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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

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They heard from three Black mental health experts who answered questions on stigmatization, specific resources and general tips.

Sanders organized the effort with Cook County Board Commissioner Dennis Deer and Evolent Health, a health care consultant. The South Side pastor has worked with the group before to reach Black congregations, notably in 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 talked to the ministers was Donald Dew, president of Enabling Systemsa social service and behavioral health nonprofit.

Most questions from the ministers, Dew said, focused on building trust and destigmatization.

In the Black community, Dew said, the stigma around mental health stems in part from not wanting to be seen as unable to handle responsibility. Instead, he added, those suffering from mental issues are simply told to deal with it.

“We’re told to man up — but who do you talk to about how to do that?” Dew said.

Dew and the others gave the ministers information on a host of resources, from hotlines to free counseling services, that they can 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 am Sunday.

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

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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