PLAIN TWP. – For centuries, minority churches have served a dual purpose as a place of worship and as a social safe haven.
That doesn’t mean people of faith shouldn’t seek mental health treatment if they need it, says Dr. Ikeshia Smith, a clinical psychologist in Canton.
On July 8, Smith will host the first Stark County Minority Mental Health Gala: Bridging the Gap Between Mental Health Agencies and Minority Churches. The event will run 7 to 9 p.m. at First Christian Church’s Heritage Hall, at 6900 Market Ave. N.
The free event is being sponsored by the Stark County Blessing Box Initiative and Primary Residential Mortgage.
“Originally, I came up with this idea three or four years ago,” Smith said. “There’s the Windchime Ball, and I thought, why isn’t there anything for African Americans and mental health?”
Smith is chief strategist for the nonprofit, Mind Your Business. She also has a private telehealth practice based in Mentor, and is a psychological resident with Ohio GuideStone, a behavioral health service.
Smith said she was spurred to increase awareness for churches in 2021 after a minority social worker she knew died from suicide.
Shortly after joining Mind Your Business and while working on her doctorate, Smith uncovered research on minorities’ reluctance to seek mental health care. It also showed that more than 90% of African Americans use their faith or spirituality to cope with mental health issues and various stressors.
No Judgement Zones
“For some, that is successful; however, for others, it is simply not enough,” Smith said. “Research over the past two years shows an increase in minority youth suicide, adult suicide, depression, anxiety and trauma. Therefore, the collaboration and coordination between local mental health agencies and pastors ensures minority congregations are equipped with the necessary tools to address these ongoing mental health concerns.
“Our focus is on African American minorities; however, all minorities and other cultural groups are welcome to attend.”
Smith created No Judgement Zones in 2020 to increase awareness of the issue, and to provide pastors with resources to help their parishioners.
“I thought it would be the perfect opportunity,” she said. “We’ve kind of steered toward the pastors because they are the leaders in their congregations.”
Local churches who have hosted No Judgement Zones include the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ and Abundant Grace of God Church in Canton, and Solomon’s Temple in Cleveland.
“We try to address the stigma,” Smith said. “Seeking help does mean you don’t have faith. Yes, your faith can get you maybe out of that little depression that you have or maybe calm your anxiety, but it’s also OK to talk to a professional, as well. We steer the program toward the pastors, to try to equip them with the tools they need. We try to point to the research and different things that may have people vulnerable. We try also to make sure we continue to talk about suicide, to normalize the conversation.
“I think sometimes when we talk about suicide, it gets scary, so we tend to avoid talking about it. No, we need to have those open conversations versus not talking about it … so the point in having this event is to open those conversations, to normalize those conversations.”
Though one myth has been that Blacks don’t commit suicide, Smith says the statistics prove otherwise.
“Research says they do, do that,” she said, “Actually, over the past two years with COVID, there was an increase among Black youth suicide and suicide in general, but specifically Black youth had a significant increase over all racial demographics.”
Some of the chief causes, Smith said, tend to be environmental stressors such as bullying, self-esteem, family conflicts and social media.
‘It’s OK not to be OK’
“Granted, it’s been happening over the past two decades, but we saw the faster rate in the past two years,” she said.
No Judgement Zones are two-hour PowerPoint programs facilitated by licensed professionals. A graduate of Kent State University, Smith earned a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University, and her doctorate in clinical psychology from Cappella University.
“It consists of going over the science and symptoms, and interventions they can use and help they can get afterwards,” she said. “We also try to tie in the spirituality as well. It’s also about collaborating and connecting them with mental health services. We also try to also provide them with statistics. Literally nobody thought Black youth suicide would be skyrocketing, but it did.”
Smith said the outreach also stresses advocacy, adding that she’s gotten assistance and support from StarkMHAR, Stark Mental Health and Recovery.
“Oftentimes minority groups tend not to have one, or they’re ignored,” she said. “My group with be advocating for local leaders to come together to find out what we can do.”
Smith said there remains a stubborn belief among some minorities that to seek help is a sign of weakness.
“Choosing to get help does not mean you’re weak,” she said. “I want people to know that its OK to not be OK. It’s also also OK to reach out for support.”
To register, visit the shortened link, https://bit.ly/3I5k4vH or contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a registration fee of $2.70 per person.