American Foundation for Suicide Prevention staff and volunteers Victor Armstrong, Rev. Daphne Swinton, Markita Madden-Puckett, Tandra Rutledge, Rev. Dr. Frozine Reece-Smith, WyKisha Thomas-McKinney, Rev. Dr. DeLois Brown-Daniels, and Phillip Tyler.
Pictured above are volunteers and staff who are part of the first cohort of trainers for the ‘Soul Shop for Black Churches.’ From left to right: Victor Armstrong, Rev. Daphne Swinton, Markita Madden-Puckett, Tandra Rutledge, Rev. Dr. Frozine Reece-Smith, WyKisha Thomas-McKinney, Rev. Dr. DeLois Brown-Daniels, and Phillip Tyler. Image Provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  • Soul Shop for Black Churches is a new effort by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that’s working to change attitudes and improve access to mental health services in communities of color.
  • The one-day workshop helps train faith leaders to identify and provide support to members in their congregations who may be facing mental health challenges.
  • It also works to end stigmatization of mental health challenges and the need for professional treatment.

Phillip Tyler lost his 22-year-old son Devon to suicide nearly five years ago.

“I was raised by a Black father from the Deep South, Arkansas, in the Jim Crow era. And he was raised by his father, who was a military man, [who taught him] to put the mask on. Never let them see you cry. Never show emotions in public [because] that shows you are weak,” Tyler told Healthline. “His father raised him that way. And I raised my children that way. And because of this misconstrued masculinity, the pressing up of our emotions, I’m without a son today.”  

Tyler, an Air Force veteran, former president of the Spokane NAACP, and a devout Southern Baptist, said his experience and newfound understanding of how family, friends, and community can help a person address mental health challenges, inspired him to join a new program — one that’s aiming to prevent suicide by giving Black faith leaders the tools they need to help.

Soul Shop for Black Churches was launched in August by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The one-day workshop focuses on equipping faith leaders with the skills necessary to help them identify and provide support to members in their congregations who may be facing mental health challenges and families who have been affected by suicide.

How the church can play an important role in improving mental health in Black communities

“The church has always had such a huge footprint in the Black community and it’s really been that gateway to the community,” said Victor Armstrong, MSW, national director of Soul Shop for Black Churches.

Armstrong, who also serves on the Board of Directors of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention-North Carolina, said because the Black church is “the place that the community looks to for guidance,” it “makes sense that the Black church could have a role to play in raising the awareness about suicide.”

Armstrong explained that “Soul Shop” training involves helping faith leaders create “soul safe” communities.

He defines those as places where people feel like they are in a safe space spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, where they feel they can be vulnerable and talk about the pain they’re experiencing.

The workshops also make faith leaders aware of a range of resources that they can use to refer others who may need care from mental health professionals.

“Obviously we’re not training them to be clinicians. Taking one day of Soul Shop is not going to make you a health professional,” he said. “But what it does is, it helps people think about it differently.”

Armstrong explained that one of the workshop’s primary goals is to encourage faith leaders to talk more openly about how “suicide, anxiety, depression, and desperation do exist in the church” and that “it doesn’t make you any less of a Christian” to discuss and address these issues.

“The same way they minister to people with physical pain, they have to minister to people with emotional pain,” he said.

Addressing the increasing rates of suicide in Black communities

Organizations like the Soul Shop for Black Churches were created in response to an alarming trend in Black communities: increasing suicide rates.

According to a November 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of suicides in the U.S. decreased by 3% in 2020. But the rate of suicide has increased among the Black population, a rise that began before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Armstrong believes that some of the factors contributing to this increase are the unique additional burdens that people of color carry.

“Racism is one of those things. Some of the historical trauma we face is unique to the Black community,” he said.

Rheeda Walker, PhD, professor, Department of Psychology, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, is a clinical psychologist who researches and writes about mental health and suicide prevention among ethnic minorities.

In addition to the stressors that come from outside communities of color, she said that mental health stigma within the community also plays a significant role.

“There’s a tremendous amount of stigma, but in the African-American community, there’s even more stigma because of this perception of weakness,” she told Healthline. “That becomes something that compromises an individual’s capacity to be able to talk about mental health challenges.”

She added, “All of those things are kind of bundled up into this web of, ‘Well, I don’t want to talk about that. And I don’t want to tell people my business,’ and this sort of cultural language that’s used that says, ‘We’re not going to do this.’”

In research she’s conducted, Walker said she’s found that Black people who have a strong, positive sense of what it means to be a Black person and who have a connection to a “higher power” tend to be “less likely to think about suicide and to create suicide plans easily.”

However, she theorized that the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people weren’t able to attend churches in person, may have made things worse for some by “adding gasoline to a fire that was already percolating.”

How tailored training can help improve mental health in Black communities

“It’s a tremendous idea,” Walker said of organizations like Soul Shop for Black Churches. “It’s really incredibly important to be able to tailor prevention and intervention for specific communities. So, I’m really glad to hear that they are putting this in place.”

Dr. Erica Martin Richards, chair and medical director, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Sibley Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, enthusiastically agreed with Walker’s assessment.

“I applaud this initiative,” she told Healthline. “The point is to figure out how we can perform an outreach that’s culturally sensitive, that is available, and that’s really touching the right people in order to try to cause a shift in outcomes.”

Richards added that churches, especially in Black communities, have long played a role in helping heal members.

“When we look at this from a healing perspective, then it’s these religious leaders that are identified as the spiritual counselors, but also the resources for congregations that are struggling,” she said.

Equally important, Richards stressed, is the message that parishioners are sharing that people are not “betraying their faith” by seeking help from mental health professionals.

“It’s basic mental health and we really want to be clear that you can do both,” Richards, who also identifies as a person of faith, explained. “I believe that prayer has a role in healing. I believe that prayer has a role in helping to treat, because there’s not necessarily a cure for mental health, but helping to treat mental health issues.”

“But I also think that there is a role for more modern medicine, for therapy that is outside of what prayer can do, and so you need to understand that you’re not weak. If you ask for help, that’s actually a sign of strength,” she added.

Open communication is a powerful tool in suicide prevention

Richards said getting people to share their stories can play a key part in suicide prevention.

“This can be in testimonies in church. Sometimes people write for the church newsletter or community newsletter,” she said. “Sometimes just talking one-on-one and identifying good interactions they’ve had with therapists or counselors might help to promote other people to seek the same outcomes.”

Tyler said he takes every opportunity that comes his way to do just that. He explained that sharing his story gives him a way to turn his grief into positive action.

It’s a message he has shared with his own fellow members at Restoration Church in Spokane, where he encourages parents to look and listen for signs of trouble. 

He knows the power stories can have to open minds and change hearts, and if sharing his can help others reach a better understanding of how to address mental health, he’s happy to continue doing it.

Tyler said he hopes for a future where mental health challenges are no longer stigmatized, and no parent has to experience losing their child to suicide as he did.

“It’s what drives me to do this,” he said.

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