HARLEM — Rev. Michael Walrond doesn't just preach the gospel from the pulpit of the historically black First Corinthian Baptist Church. He also shares his personal struggles with depression.
“As a pastor, I’ve always talked about it from the pulpit,” he said.
“When you hear the pastor talk about it from the pulpit, it makes it easier. They feel affirmed.”
When a person struggles with depression, there’s often an unwillingness to discuss it or seek help, he said. Hearing they're not alone helps.
This has led the man, known affectionately as Pastor Mike, to have the church at 1912 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. open the first-of-its-kind mental health center in the neighborhood.
It's meant to provide an alternative to the traditional ways in which people seek mental health care, particularly in the African American community where a stigma often surrounds it, he said.
“The traditional response was to pray about it,” he said. “Not to negate that, but that’s not the same as having a mental health practitioner.”
The HOPE Center, which stands for “Healing On Purpose and Evolving,” opened Thursday. It will operate a few blocks from the church in a 700-square-foot space at 228 W. 116th St. and provide individual services for children and adults as well as groups.
For the past couple of years, the church has had informal counseling with a part-time staff member. But it's always wanted to expand, said Walrond.
“There’s a normalization of trauma in this community,” he said. “We don’t engage it, we don’t address it.”
The city’s First Lady Chirlane McCray, who has spearheaded mental health reform in the city, lauded the new center at the grand opening Thursday.
“Government cannot do this work alone and we shouldn’t expect people to travel someplace unfamiliar to deal with people they do not trust when they’re suffering,” she said.
“Now folks who live, work and worship in this community are only a short walk away from high-quality affordable mental health care and that care will be delivered by people who understand this community.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also applauded the effort and called for additional mental resources for city schools, noting that a student committed suicide at a Harlem school two years ago.
Walrond said he recognized people in the congregation — and the community at large — with mental health issues and wanted a way to provide additional resources.
Much of what was in the way was a language problem, he said. People were sometimes fearful of being labeled “crazy" or apprehensive about seeking a therapist.
“Language is the biggest way to take the stigma away,” he said.
Rev. Kyndra Frazier, who will serve as the center’s executive director and is the church’s associate pastor for pastoral care, agreed.
“I wanted to do more than tell people to pray about it,” she said. “I want to develop new narratives… I want people to be empowered to share their problems.”
Frazier said she was drawn to the endeavor because of her background in social work and counseling and being a pastor.
She attended Columbia University’s School of Social Work with a focus on mental health and served in the Atlanta public school system as a social worker.
She arrived at the church a few months ago to lead the center with another counselor at the church.
The center will not treat the people seeking care as a “client” with a “condition,” but rather with compassionate counseling, she added.
The center will partner with Columbia University, particularly Dr. Sidney Hankerson, a psychiatry professor at the school. It will also rely on volunteers.
Frazier is especially focused on counseling those who have experienced religious trauma. In other words, providing counseling to those who were in dogmatic churches. For instance, someone who may be gay but attended a church where being gay is condemned from the pulpit.
“A lot of the time religious and spiritual abuse can go unseen,” she said.
The center will start off small but plans to expand, said pastor Mike.
“I know someone will be blessed by it,” he said.