Not long after I became vice president for the Minnesota Conference, I had to face the grim reality of officiating at the funeral of a young lady who took her life. I had baptized this young lady earlier in my ministry when I was a district pastor. The father and mother remain active members of the church.
While talking with the parents and friends of the deceased young lady, I discovered that she suffered from mental illness.1 She felt isolated socially. This isolation was compounded by the fact that the African community is, by and large, a communal society. It was thus concluded by many in our community that this social isolation and ostracization was the trigger point for her suicide.
This feeling of social isolation makes the prospects of reaching out for help very difficult, and many people in the Black community believe that a mental health condition is a sign of weakness, which results in a very low number of people seeking treatment. The stigma associated with mental illness also creates fear of negative reactions like discrimination by the community.
In my dialogue with community leaders and health professionals, I learned that Blacks in make up 18.7 percent of those affected by mental illness in the United States.2 I also learned that there has been a history of discrimination in the healthcare system. Unfortunately, Blacks still experience provider bias, misdiagnosis, and inadequate treatment from mental health professionals.3
The State of Minnesota has many African immigrants. In fact, the immigrant population has increased to more than 90,000 since 2000. The immigrants in Minnesota come from more than 25 African countries, making the state the ninth-largest African community in the country.4
There are several reasons Africans leave their homelands; some are fleeing political persecution or civil war, others are coming here to continue their education. The presence of such a large immigrant population presents a missiological challenge and opportunity to the Minnesota Conference. I believe, to meet this missiological challenge, the Seventh-day Adventist Church must contextualize its mission to the situation of the people in these communities.
Mission contextualization is made difficult by mental illnesses because of all the stressful factors associated with being immigrants, such as adjustment problems and loss of community identity or loss of loved ones. Studies show that these factors often lead to developing behavioral and mental health problems, especially among young people.
The Minnesota Conference administration has realized that mental issues and mental illness are real. And these issues are now threatening the stability of the Adventist Church. Our people are reaching out to their church for help.
In this ministry we realize that the “gospel is intimately connected to the workings of the mind and heart,”5 but we are also realizing that we are ill-equipped to help our communities. Consequently, African Ministries in the Minnesota Conference (through our churches) are beginning to reach out to health professionals to break the silence and stigma and help those who feel alone and isolated in their experience of mental illness. We are trying to learn how to get our people help specifically to meet their needs, and direct them to those resources.
Our largest African community church, Kenyan Community Church, organized a march and symposium with several panelists to help bring awareness to mental health and talk about available programs. The Kanyan Community Church also hosted several Zoom meetings with Dr. Karen Abdool, of Beryllium Psychiatric Services. Several of our churches have reached out to mental health providers to make presentations in our community. In July, during the African camp meeting, we hosted a presentation on mental health and testimony of loss from Elder Henry Nyamokeri, who lost his daughter to mental illness.
Awareness and promotion of resources will help, but it’s just the beginning. Learning to recognize the signs in those struggling with mental illness and guiding them toward getting the help they need will make a huge difference.
1. https://www.possibilityministries.org/mental-health-wellness “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking and/or behavior. Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”