Thema Bryant: Churches play a crucial role in providing mental health support and advocating for better policy
An AME elder who is also president-elect of the American Psychological Association talks about the ways churches can make mental health an integral part of ministry.
Growing up the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, Thema Bryant was introduced early to the heavy responsibility placed on pastors for mental health counseling. The urgency was as close as the calls to her family’s home phone.
Generations of Bryants have served the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she followed that path to become an ordained elder. Bryant also pursued a call to become a mental health care professional, earning her doctorate in clinical psychology at Duke University. She now leads the mental health ministry at First AME Church in South Los Angeles and is the president-elect of the American Psychological Association.
“I really do appreciate the blessing of my family. I was able to learn so much simply observing them and participating in the various aspects of the church. The AME Church is really founded on — along with the gospel — liberation and social justice, and that has been integral to my work,” she said. “It also is very much based in being of service to the community. It’s definitely not the kind of church that just opens on Sunday morning for two hours.”
Earlier this summer, Bryant spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about how her two vocations intersect and about ways the church can grow increasingly responsive to the community’s mental health needs. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Could we start by talking about your family’s relationship to the church and your relationship to the church?
Thema Bryant: My grandfather, Harrison James Bryant, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and my grandmother, Edith Holland Bryant, engaged in missions work, community work, and did both social work and also promoting health within our community.
My father, John Bryant, became a bishop in the AME Church. When I was growing up, he was the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, which was the largest AME church in that area. As a bishop, his first assignment was to have oversight for churches in West Africa. As a family, we moved to Liberia, West Africa. It was my mother, my father, my brother and I.
My mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, has over 40 years of women’s ministry in the AME Church, hosted many women’s conferences, has written several women’s devotional books, one of them being “I Dance With God.” My parents are now retired.
My brother is a pastor now, in Atlanta, Georgia, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Before he became the pastor there, he was the founding pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.
F&L: How did your background and religious formation contribute to your decision to pursue psychology?
TB: My father was very active with pastoral counseling; we often had people calling the house. I talk about this in my book “Homecoming” — that my first time working a crisis hotline was in my home growing up as a kid, because people are more comfortable reaching out, often, to their pastor than reaching out to a therapist. I’m glad we’re having some progress in that area, in terms of destigmatizing mental health.
But I was aware of pastoral counseling and just have always had a heart for people. As a child, I would have been called sensitive. I could feel things deeply, and when I learned that it was a career in and of itself, I felt very drawn to it. When I got to Duke University, in that second year when you need to declare your major, I was very clear in my commitment to psychology.
F&L: Can you talk about the stigma associated with mental health needs and how you think we overcome that?
TB: There’s the grassroots aspect of that, and then there’s the policy piece. On a community level, what really helps destigmatize it is both a bottom-up and a top-down approach. The top-down approach is people who are considered to be leaders in the community speaking up about mental health — even perhaps speaking up about their own use of therapy or the importance of addressing mental health. I think that gives people permission and a freedom to know that it is not shameful.
I used to attend a church where the pastor very openly talked about going to therapy and talked about also her recovery from addiction. That created an atmosphere of transparency, where a lot of people felt that it was OK then to name challenges and to go and get help and that it was very encouraged.
A number of churches now have counseling centers, whether that is with laypeople who have gone through training or whether with licensed professionals. People have to look to see who is providing the care, but even those [programs] that are led by laypeople, I think, can often be structured in a supportive way — like a support group around bereavement that’s based in the church. Sometimes they will have it around recovery or around trauma.
From the bottom up, even when people don’t have leaders who are speaking up about it, we see many more people talking about mental health and about their therapists, even in social media and among their friends. That helps open the door for other people to either say, “Oh, I have a therapist, too” or, “I wonder what that would be like. Tell me about why you went or how that helped you.”
That brings up policy and the need to continue to advocate for support for people to access mental health care, as is the case with physical health care. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the work of the American Psychological Association. Not only do we have researchers, practitioners and educators, but we also have psychologists and staff that are involved with advocacy to try to really promote access to quality mental health care for all people.
F&L: Churches are natural places for both direct service and advocacy. They’re central to communities. We would hope that they are places people see as compassionate and caring. There’s space for them to be models.
TB: Definitely. That can really be a shift. I think we have examples within our faith communities of those who have been antagonistic to mental health and those who have been promoters. Some faith leaders, unfortunately, have discouraged mental health treatment by saying, “If you prayed about it, you should be fine” or, “You don’t need to go to outsiders; we have enough with our faith.”
I know that that has been very harmful, with people who needed help either not seeking it or those who sought it having shame or embarrassment, thinking their faith must be insufficient.
We also have wonderful folks across denominations who have promoted these messages of compassion and care and collaboration. I really appreciate a number of pastors who now have referral lists and provide pastoral support and possibilities in the community for mental health services as well.
F&L: So it is not necessary for every church to have a counselor on staff, but every church can provide resources and entry points.
TB: Absolutely. Depending on the mental health professional you’re talking to, sometimes it is preferable for them not to be a member. Because if someone is a member, they would have to have very clear boundaries, or Sunday worship can turn into crisis response for the mental health professional who is coming there to worship. That would just have to be clear.
F&L: What would your advice be to a pastor who wants to be a good model or provide resources? What could be a starting point for a church that recognizes this need but might be stretched thin?
TB: One resource is Mental Health Ministries. They have a number of ready-made resources that deal with this integration of faith and mental health. In addition, I would say integrating mental health in the liturgy. So when you’re having prayer, include those who are facing depression, those who are living with anxiety, those who are struggling with addiction, those who are grieving.
When you have health fairs at the church, be intentional about making sure there’s a table for mental health. Not only do we have screenings for blood pressure and everything else, but if you just contact a local agency or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, they have a number of volunteers who in most areas would be willing to come out for health fairs or as speakers. Do not feel like you have to know everything about every disorder. Collaborate with experts.
The other real starting place, I would say, is to find out if in your congregation there are any licensed professionals. If you have therapists, social workers, psychologists, then if you all have a part of the service for announcements, they could do a mental health minute once a month or once a quarter. During those announcements, they could come up and just give some tips about mental health.
If you are still printing physical bulletins, you could include some resources in there or some quick facts about mental health. In your sermons, I would say think about trauma-informed sermons, which is really just being biblically based. There are many stories in there of trauma, of abuse, of despair.
Sometimes, we go into what I call a psychological prosperity gospel — “If you love Jesus, you’ll be happy all the time.” It’s just not accurate. It was not true for David. It was not true for the disciples or the prophets. It wasn’t true for Jesus. It’s important for us to really pay attention to the ways psychology shows up in the text that will allow our ministry and our preaching to be more relevant to where people are in their lives.
When we have these various retreats and conferences, if we have a youth conference, think about having a workshop that has to do with mental health. Many of our youth are really struggling. Yes, it’s important for them to know the Bible; we also want them to live. We see rates around suicide and other challenges, and so we need to be holistic in our planning of our retreats and conferences so it is spiritual, emotional and physical health all being encouraged as the will of God for people’s lives.
F&L: You had a wonderful quote in a prior interview: “To require people to only feel joy and gratitude is dehumanizing. It does not give space or permission to honor their humanity.” I’m wondering what you might say to that balance we’re all trying to strike between honoring the trauma and keeping ourselves going.
TB: Holding space for both and leaning more into the ways that we can honor time for our stillness and healing. I think many of us cope by busyness, and that gets celebrated in our communities, because you’re giving back and you’re volunteering for everything the church needs. Sometimes, we’re not tuned in to the person who is doing a million things — what may be going on on the inside of them that is motivating that. Can they tolerate stillness and silence?
Pay attention to the different warning signs of how the effects show up. It can show up with depression. It can show up with irritability. It can show up with anxiety. It can show up with numbness.
If you’re seeing all these things happening and you feel nothing, that’s also a trauma response, and so being compassionate with ourselves as we take note of that and then being mindful of our healing practice like, “What do I do for my wellness?” That can include our journaling. It can include talking with family and friends, but also I hope people will consider therapy as well. Often, we just try to stuff it down and say, “I prayed about it; I’m over it.” But it still bleeds out in different areas of our lives.
I would highlight the commandment that we love others the way we love ourselves. We often focus on the others — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We focus outward, but if I am to love you as I love me, then I have to also love me.
Does the way that I give myself permission to rest look like love? Does what I choose to feed my body look like love? If I loved myself, would I set some boundaries I’m not currently setting? Love ourselves and lean into some of the stillness so that we can really heal.