I walked up to an older lady to introduce myself and give her a flyer for my event (Save Our Babies: A Heart To Heart About Suicide For Children of Color) addressing suicide and mental health for Black and Latino children, and her response was, “No, thank you. I just pray for everyone.” I was not surprised by her response however, it made me think about how so many of us in the Black Christian community (sometimes) use faith as a crutch. No, I am not saying that prayer does not work because I am a witness. God spared my life from suicide and performed countless miracles. For some reason, we tend to think all we must do is pray about everything and things will get better. I only believe that statement to be half true because the bible says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26). What do you say to the person who is praying, hearing voices and seeing things that aren’t there and is not finding relief? What do you say to the person who has not showered or eaten in three days? Keep praying? We are more accepting of illnesses such as cancer and diabetes but when it comes to the mind, we deny it and simply act as if mental illness does not exist. Would you tell the person with cancer not to go to chemo? Would you tell the person with a broken leg not to go to the hospital for an x-ray and cast?
I get extremely frustrated because I lost my 14-year-old cousin to suicide. When I was suicidal, I was told to talk in tongues for 20 minutes a day and my depression would go away. I was also told that taking medication would make me feel worst. I immediately pulled away from the church and eventually God because of the lack of education in the church about mental health. No one in my church community suggested that I see a therapist or psychiatrist. Why is that? The brain is an organ just like the heart and liver, and if not properly taken care of, it can become sick.
I have spoken at church conferences and I often speak about the story of Elijah, a prophet of God. He was a prophet during the time Ahab ruled over Israel. Ahab and his wife Jezebel worshiped a false god. Elijah went to Ahab and told the people to repent or God would cause a famine. So, the people would not have food or water. Jezebel did not believe in God and had the prophets killed. Elijah proposed a test to build two altars; one to his God (Jehovah) and one to the false god (Jezebel’s god). The priests of the false god called upon their god to send down fire, but there was no answer. Then Elijah called his God, the lord of Israel and fire came down and burnt up the offering. Jezebel heard of this and planned to have Elijah killed. According to the book of 1Kings 19:3-5, Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there and went on a day’s journey into the wilderness by himself. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
Elijah's statement reveals signs of depression. Two of the many signs of depression is hopelessness and feeling suicidal. Elijah also isolated himself which is also a sign of depression. I never heard anyone preach about Elijah’s story and speak about the illness of depression. If more preachers talked about mental health and told stories of those who experienced mental health challenges in the Bible, people in the church would feel comfortable coming forward. Many do not express their struggles for fear of judgment and having their faith attacked. Instead, we are told things like pray harder, fast and have more faith. It is safe to say in the biblical days, they did not have the diagnoses or advancement in science and technology, therefore mental illnesses were not given names such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. However, the symptoms and signs were there just as it was shown in Elijah.
With the rise of black children dying by suicide, according to an article by CNN and suicide increasing in almost every state in America, according to an article by Time, it is time we do more than pray. After you pray for someone, give them a referral to see a therapist. After you pray for someone, do not judge them and call them crazy. After you pray for someone, do not gossip about their struggles. After you pray for someone, educate yourself on their mental illness. We must dismantle the mental health stigma especially in the church and stop using prayer as a crutch.
So, the next time someone says “pray about it” when it comes to your mental health, please kindly remind them that you can pray and see a therapist at the same time.