Mental Health and Spirituality: Affirming a Cultural Narrative

By Aleisha Garvin
November 17, 2019

Faith: the solid foundation

According to a recent Gallup survey, African Americans are the most religious culture in the United States. Our faith and religious beliefs can be traced back to slavery as being the sure solid foundation that has sustained us through hard times and helped us to become a resilient people. Our ancestors no doubt experienced what we now know as Trauma, Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD to name a few diagnoses that were unnamed in that era. We were taught to be strong, both mentally and physically. We were taught to overcome hardships. Unfortunately, we were also taught that mental illness was a sign of weakness. In my community, people with mental illness were characterized as having character flaws, being weak or possessed by demons, etc. I learned early about stigma, about the shame and ridicule associated with mental illness. Language and labels matter. ‘Crazy’, ‘double-minded’, ‘lunatic’ were all words I heard to describe them. 

Secrecy and Mental Illness

I grew up conceptualizing that mental illness was something that you obtained by disobeying God or perhaps the result of sins of your parents or grandparents, or ‘generational curses’. One could be cursed with mental illness, developmental disabilities, or physical ailments just by being born to someone who disobeyed God. In the culture of my religion, the Apostolic Pentecostal faith, therapy and medical treatment were frowned upon and viewed as a sign of not having faith. It was indoctrinated in me that Prayer was the ONLY answer for recovery. Please do not misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with prayer for mental health issues but we still must be forward thinking and proactive. Mental illness was not something we talked about…it was kept secret. Secrets such as these have had devastating effects on African Americans. 

The lessons we learn

According to Shanequa Levin, CEO and founder of the Women’s Diversity Network and author of Poverty’s Phoenix, “Many children are victims of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and sometimes parents don’t even realize that they are exposing their children to this syndrome. Being a person who has to deal with the effects that ACEs have on me and my family, I know all too well that we need to seek out therapy to process all the trauma we have endured. . . We are not perfect and we all need to take mental health just as serious as we do our physical health.” 

Drawing on our strengths

In faith based counseling, mental health seems to raise difficult spiritual questions that we don’t always know how to answer. Moving forward, how do we clinicians provide spiritually and culturally competent mental health treatment? According to Dr. Lisa Newland, President of the Nassau Suffolk Association of Black Social Workers, “Faith traditions and oral history are major components of African American culture. Narratives of strength and struggle have contributed to the coping mechanisms of individuals, families and communities. It is important for clinicians to allow clients to tell their stories. This provides affirmation of the clients’ lived experiences, which is an essential aspect of the healing process.” It is also imperative that faith leaders support and encourage parishioners in seeking treatment in addition to prayer. 

No discrimination here

Mental illness does not discriminate, and can affect any of us. It should not be a source of shame and secrets. We all have a narrative to tell. God has called his chosen servants to be vessels of healing to the afflicted. Please seek treatment. 

LCC is here to serve. 


Aleisha L Garvin, LCSW, received a Master’s of Social Work degree from Fordham University in NY. She is a Fellow of Georgetown University having received post Graduate Certifications in Multi-Systems Integration: NYC Crossover Youth Practice Model and Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice Certificate Programs. Aleisha currently works in Nassau County Government. She has over 25 years of Forensic Experience working in Government in the areas of Social Welfare, Criminal Justice and Mental Health.  She is a member of the Statewide Multicultural Advisory Committee at the NYS Office of Mental Health. Aleisha  is a certified trainer and field supervisor. She counsels adults, teens and families at the Mineola site.


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