How Stigma In The African American Faith Community Has Impacted Me

I have been a “church girl” all of my life and have been shaped by the traditions and cultural importance of the African American church community.  I grew up with a common belief that you can “pray away” illness, but there was a contrast in how physical illness and mental illness were viewed in my community.

For example, I knew many people with diabetes and high blood pressure. Many of these individuals believed that God will heal them through prayer. I have also seen others offer prayers to God to heal the person of their physical illness even if the person was still living a lifestyle that is detrimental to their health. In contrast to medical diagnoses such as diabetes, mental illness was often seen as the result of having demons, bad spirits, or curses. The person with mental illness was sometimes also stigmatized by being seen as having a personality problem. Often times mental illness was viewed as a private family matter not to be shared with others.

I remember people standing up in church to pray for my mother who has stage four cancer. No one would encourage the congregation to pray for my mother had she been diagnosed with clinical depression, schizophrenia, or some other mental illness.

I was raised not have any knowledge of anyone formally diagnosed with mental illness. As a child my grandmother would say describe someone as being “touched in the head”, what she considered a “polite” way of saying this person is mentally ill and to be pitied. If someone exhibited strange behavior, they were told to get themselves together or risk being sent to Milledgeville, the Central State Hospital in Georgia.

Seeing a private therapist or psychiatrist was not something people in my community did. My mother’s generation tackled mental illness by sending people to the state hospital or keeping the person at home and out of view. There was shame in telling other church members that they had sent their child to the state mental institution but this stigma was not attached to receiving private inpatient hospital care; I attribute this to different socioeconomic systems.

I was fortunate to have parents with “good jobs” and good insurance coverage. When I began having mental health struggles at 15, I was sent to a private inpatient hospital for a diagnosis in 1991. Here I started receiving proper medical treatment but was not receiving regular psychotherapy. Unfortunately, my parents were not given any referrals or information regarding psychotherapy and counseling for adolescents; the stigma in our community prevented them from understanding the importance of therapy in treatment and therefore did not know how to advocate for me. I was 38 before recognizing the importance of seeing a therapist and now attend a monthly bipolar support group in addition to seeing a therapist.

After my inpatient stay at the psychiatric hospital, I experienced a fear of crowds and irrational thoughts. I would try to explain to my mother about the solar system and UFOs, spending countless hours drawing these elaborate diagrams that explained my beliefs. At the time I was prescribed Wellbutrin and it was thought that the meds would make everything right. I had limited psychiatric care, therapy, and no support groups. I did not understand that my symptoms, such as hyper-sexuality and manic spending, were part of my illness. Instead, my grandmother would sit my medicine and a cup of water at the kitchen table and then watch me head out the door for school thinking that the medication had everything under control.

The impact of stigma in my community affected how I viewed my illness, especially in my twenties. The thought of going to a psychiatric hospital again was a source of shame but also the thought that I did not pray enough or that I was not close enough to God. I even had a spiritual guru tell me that if stayed in a higher consciousness and followed certain rituals that I would not need my medicine. I stopped taking that medicine and nearly went into psychosis. She later apologized. I thought that if only I had done all the “right” religious things such as going to church, reading my bible more, or praying more this “bipolar stuff” would not be happening.

Over time I have received more education on my illness and am able to receive the treatment necessary to thrive as well as overcome some of the stigma in my community. Acceptance is a constant journey but I see progress. My faith has developed from being a source of stigma to becoming a source of strength in dealing with bipolar disorder. For example, when I was in a mixed state my church prayed for me during the church service.  At the time my medications had not taken their full effect – there was much desperation and pain for me. The positive support of church elders praying for me reminded me that I am loved and accepted. I have seen much progress. I am not sure when I made it known, but I have become more comfortable sharing my diagnosis and educating others about bipolar disorder. I now realize that I am not bipolar, but I have bipolar disorder.

Recently a Thanksgiving collection was taken up to support a local counseling center. Self-inflicted deaths are starting to be seen as a result of mental illness, and not a result of succumbing to demons. Both are signs that we are overcoming stigma. In the future, I plan on giving talks on mental illness and spirituality within my denomination and larger faith community. No one should be urged to stop taking their medicine because the elders have “laid hands on them” or “anointed them with oil”.

Personally prayer promotes a source of hope for me. I repeat mantras that I use in stressful times. Practicing yoga relaxes me and promotes a state of being in the here and now. Also, having a therapist who also has a doctorate in divinity helps me have a holistic approach to the challenges of dealing with bipolar disorder.  I can be honest with him because there is no shaming. He helps me work through boundaries and accountability resources before and during manic episode. I believe the combination of medication, therapy, and spirituality are holistic resources that treat the person as an integrated system each dependent upon other. I hope to help others who grew up feeling that mental illness is a source of shame and not a medical illness overcome these feelings and to help faith communities overcome these false beliefs so that they can instead be a place of support and encouragement.

Author bio:

My name is Ivory Smith Causey. I have a B.A. in sociology with a minor in women and gender studies from Georgia Southern University. I have a B.S. in nursing from Macon State College and is medical surgical certified. I am a registered nurse at Atrium-Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia. I work in an inpatient dialysis unit. I work with finding ways to balance being a nurse but also realizing when I need nursing. I am a member of the American Holistic Nurses Association and hope to be certified in holistic nursing.

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