Alsobrooks, County Executive Rushern L. Baker (D), the Rev. Andre Ivy of First Baptist Church of Marshall Heights, Mount Ararat Baptist Church Clinical Director Taunya Tinsley, the Rev. Donald Marbury of Ebenezer AME Church in Brunswick and Georgetown University Medical School Psychiatry Associate Professor Alfiee Breland-Noble.
Alsobrooks kicked off the conference with a discussion on confronting the elephant in the room — increased violence among mentally ill individuals and the need for more training and help to protect families, especially children.
“What we’ve noticed is that family violence remains consistent,” Alsobrooks said. “This is confusing to us sometimes when we really consider the fact that it is more likely, in some respects now, that you will be killed or harmed by someone you know and love than a stranger. What we have come to understand in connection with that is the very powerful link between mental illness and much of what we’re seeing in our families.”
Having spoken with the director of the county corrections department, Alsobrooks said well over 25 percent of people who are admitted to jail suffer from mental illness, while 70 percent of people are intoxicated, high on drugs or have an addiction of some kind.
For Alsobrooks, she said she is concerned and disturbed by the criminal justice system’s nonchalant response to helping those individuals in need. Instead of finding effective ways to address their needs, mentally ill people and addicts are incarcerated, she said.
“There always is a symptom of some sort and we sometimes turn our head the other way,” Alsobrooks said. “We prosecute over 3,000 [domestic violence] cases per year in Prince George’s County. I have to tell you that less than 50 percent of the people who come forward — out of that 3,000 who have been injured or harmed — ever come back to us for any help. They go back home. … There are children in these households who are watching this violence everyday [which has] a very devastating impact. This is where we have to work harder to make sure that our children are safe. I urge you to join me in doing what we can to speak out not just for the adults suffering in these situations, but the children who are the invisible victims of what we are seeing.”
Ivy said the challenge in the faith community is that there are so many people whose mental health/illness has not been attended to or addressed because of the social stigma associated with the disease.
“Our churches are filled on Sundays with persons grappling with the harsh realities of living with issues and concerns that they are afraid or fearful to discuss with anyone, especially those in their congregation,” said Ivy, who has worked as a clinical therapist. “They sit on our pews, sing in our choirs, sit on our boards, work with our ministries and sadly, some are assigned to work with our children. Many of these issues have never been addressed for whatever reason and what we’ve done in the church, especially the African-American church, is we’ve allowed abnormalities to be treated as normalities. In reality, these individuals are crying for help. Those who did not get the help but need it, many times attempt to keep it a secret from their family and friends.”
According to a 2002 report from the Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association, the behavioral impact, or discrimination, that results from public stigma may take four forms which include withholding help, avoidance, coercive treatment and segregated institutions. Previous studies have shown that the public will withhold help to some minority groups because of corresponding stigma. A more extreme form of this behavior is social avoidance, where the public strives to not interact with people with mental illness altogether, the report noted.
Nearly every person sitting in the pews has been touched in some way by mental illness. And yet individuals and families continue to suffer in si- lence or stop coming to their faith community because they are not receiving the support they so desperately need. They become detached from their faith community and their spirituality, which is an important source of healing, wholeness and hope in times of personal darkness, according to the Mental Health Ministries website.
“There are spiritual leaders and pastors who may not be equipped to address these concerns. You run the risk of getting into trouble and possible litigation because you’re trying to handle an issue that you’re not qualified to deal with,” Ivy said. “Positive thought, religion and spirituality can be a powerful tool in recovery but it shouldn’t be the only form of treatment.”
Ivy said pastors aren’t called to be therapists or counselors. Rather, their duty is to guide mentally ill people to a place where they can receive help and the services they need.
“It is our job as the church to meet persons right where they are. Mental health doesn’t have to be a bad word in the church, but it can be a starting point for pro- viding assistance to those who need it,” he said.
“Our No. 1 Christian ethic is to love our neighbors and sometimes loving our neighbors does not mean turning our head,” Tinsley said. “The first place most people will go to is the church instead of a professional counselor. And if somebody is going to the church seeking help, clergy and spiritual leaders need to have a collaborative relationship with professionals that are in the community.”
Baker, whose wife has Alzheimer’s disease, said the best way to take on the mental illness and health issues in the community is to look at it holistically and collectively. The more the community talks about it, the better it will be, he said.
“There are people all around us who have mental health issues and so many don’t know it,” said Baker. “Whether it is Alzheimer’s or depression, we must bring mental health to the forefront. … Together, we must make this a priority for our community. I believe that this conference is an important step to help us get there.”