Have you ever lived in a place where there is only one season, the Rev. Diane Angella Bogues asked the audience at the fifth annual Faith and Medicine – Working to Eliminate Health Disparities conference.
The uniformity of each day in a place where the weather hardly changes can sometimes drag people down, she explained. Individuals struggling with grief, depression and other mental illness can experience a similar sense of stalled progress. Yet nature gives us clues for moving from season to season in life, she said.
“As the trees are losing their leaves, they teach us how to let go; no season is meant to stay that way forever,” said Bogues, who directs the recruitment efforts at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bogue’s message that conference participants should deal with their past so that they can walk into a new season was the keynote of the April 29 Rochester conference, organized by the Rochester affiliate of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDs, with support from the Black Physicians Network of Greater Rochester, the Interdenominational Health Ministry Coalition, and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
A preconference session April 28 for health care professionals featured information on HIV and mental health and opioid overdose prevention. The evening session, sponsored by the Clinical Education Initiative of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute and the Mount Sinai Institute for Advanced Medicine, featured dinner and provided continuing education credits for clinicians.
“The big taboo that we in the faith community don’t like to talk about is mental illness,” said the Rev. Weldon G. Thomas, pastor of the New Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who spoke to clergy and faith community leaders about recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although counseling by a religious leader can play an important short-term role, pastors need to know their limits and not hesitate to refer people who have experienced a traumatic situation to a trained mental health professional for longer-term counseling, said Thomas, who served for two decades as a military chaplain.
“If we are not sure what we are doing, we can set someone off, or put someone into deeper crisis, Thomas said. “Know when to refer.”
People of faith who have experienced a trauma may be able to use their faith to help aid in their healing, he said. “It’s amazing how we can turn bad into good because of the underpinnings of our faith,” Thomas said.
The Rev. Sebrone Johnson echoed those sentiments, encouraging pastors to identify people are struggling and refer them for the appropriate help. “One of the primary goals of today should be partnership,” Johnson said. “You need to break down these silos.”
Pediatrician Dr. Cheryl Kodjo noted that one in five children is affected by a debilitating mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, substance abuse or eating disorders. Due to long-standing stigma around mental health and substance abuse, many in the faith community hesitate to encourage a family member to get treatment or take medication, she said.
“If this were high blood pressure, we’d deal with it,” Kodjo said. “How is this any different?”
Traci C. Terrance, a clinical social worker who has worked with outpatient mental health, called on the community to recognize that issues of mental health and substance abuse can leave people feeling powerless. “How do we create spaces where people recognize the power they have?” she asked. “How are you creating spaces for people to recognize their power?”
The State Department of Health sees an opportunity to involve faith communities in engaging people in their health, said attendee Carol Tyrell, coordinator of the Faith Communities project for the New York State Department of Health AIDS institute. The state is realizing “the need for faith communities to be involved in all of our health efforts,” Tyrell said.
The day ended with an exercise about a fictional, troubled 7-year-old that helped participants identify how everyone touching a young person’s life can be a support, from parents and teacher to the pediatrician, therapist, pastor and Sunday school teacher. Suggestions included engaging the child in a conversation by highlighting with her strengths, such as her artistic ability and regular attendance at church, and giving her time to express what she is feeling.
“All of us can be of assistance to this family,” said attendee Marielena Vélez de Brown, deputy commissioner of mental health for Monroe County, who noted that everyone in the community can play a role in supporting those with mental, emotional and behavioral health concerns.
That insight prompted a “Hallelujah” from facilitator Melanie Funchess, director of community engagement for the Mental Health Association of Rochester.
Themed “It’s Your Season,” next year’s Faith and Medicine conference on April 28, 2018, will focus on the care of those with substance use disorders.