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St. Louis-based organization equips Black churches to serve members with mental health needs

"We're providing free services to those individuals who do not have health insurance and need that kind of support," Jackson-Beavers said

ST. LOUIS — When Pastor Carl A. Lucas initially heard about Bridges to Care and Recovery, he admittedly didn't give it much attention. 

"I kind of blew it off," Lucas said. 

A few months later, the church member who initially approached him about it circled back, and he said he decided to try it. 

"It may sound really crazy," Lucas said. "We went through all this training just to take time out and listen."

While listening is a big part, it's just the first step. 

Program Manager Rose Jackson-Beavers said the program focuses on training faith leaders to notice and respond to members of their congregation who are in need of mental health services.

"African Americans need to feel more comfortable saying that they have mental health issues so that those issues can be treated," Jackson-Beavers said. 

In 2015, Jackson-Beavers said a group of pastors said the best way to reach the Black community on the topic of mental health was to address it in church, so that's what they decided to do. 

"For so long the church as been the pillar of our community," Jackson-Beavers said. "So, why not come here for mental health?"

However, faith leaders like Pastor Lucas acknowledge there are many hurdles. 

"Traditionally, the Black community is taboo to say that you have a behavioral issue," Lucas said. 

He said that as the Black community is becoming more open to discussing mental healthcare, programs like Bridges are crucial. 

While a large part of the barrier is stigma, there are still practical needs, like cost. 

"We're providing free services to those individuals who do not have health insurance and need that kind of support," Jackson-Beavers said. 

They also offer the 20-hour training to pastors or designated church leaders to become so-called wellness champions, meaning they know who to seek out, the signs to look for, the right language to use, and the resources to lead members to when the needs are greater than what can be provided at the church. 

The program is under the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis, so it has access to a number of counseling services and programs. The training consists of 20 hours, including an eight-hour mental health first aid training, suicide prevention training, and trauma training. The goal is to make sure that churches in north St. Louis County and north St. Louis city have both the physical and emotional space to address the needs of their congregations and communities. The same communities that were being crippled by violence before being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

"We have seen a huge increase of people who are calling the hotline for support because of grief, losing individuals to COVID, and being locked in their homes," Jackson-Beaver said. "People are calling us more for domestic violence or feeling locked in and lonely because they can't see anybody."

So far, 241 wellness champions have graduated from 78 churches in north city and north county, but Jackson-Beavers said there are more than 500 churches in the area. They want to reach them all. She wants each church to be able to present the same message to their members. 

"You can come here," Jackson-Beavers said. "We will have the resources, the information. We understand what you're going through, and we're a behavior health-friendly congregation."

Pastor Lucas said it's rare that a day goes by without him using some of the skills he's learned through bridges. 

"You know, I've been through school and Bible college and all of that but I found out Bridges gave me a niche I didn't know," Pastor Lucas said. " When I'm counseling or coaching or engaging with people, I look for those buzzwords and those things that are going to help me be effective and get the best results."

Any pastor interested in the program can contact Rose Jackson-Beavers at 314-306-2972 or rbeavers@bhnstl.org.

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