As a college senior, Dacari Middlebrooks got a dreadful call. His best friend had been murdered.
This led to three years of violent nightmares when finally, one of his seminary professors suggested therapy. Middlebrooks rejected the advice flat-out.
"I said, 'I appreciate your suggestion but black people don't go to counseling—we just pray about it," he told CBN News.
Middlebrooks is part of a growing number of Americans suffering from mental health issues.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five adults experience some type of mental illness every year.
Despite Middlebrook's initial resistance, he eventually made his way to a therapist and it changed his life.
"I went to counseling. I enjoyed it. It was like the greatest two and a half years of my life," he said.
He began attending a church with a pastor who openly talked about his struggle after his first wife died.
Bishop Joseph Walker of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville told CBN News about his journey.
"I went through an incredible loss in my life and found myself in a place of depression and didn't know what it was," he said. "I knew I was in a dark place."
Bishop Walker also eventually sought out counseling and as he healed he realized his own church needed a wake-up call.
"I think there is in the African-American community this whole idea that—this phobia—this stigma—that if you get counseling you're crazy,' he said.
Now remarried, Walker and his wife Dr. Stephaine Walker, a pediatrician, decided to bring mental health to the forefront in their church.
They started ChurchFit to encourage mental health as part of a holistic health package including physical and emotional health right alongside spiritual growth. ChurchFit offers exercise classes, nutritional advice, and a focus on daily mental health.
This includes a push from the pulpit to fight the stigma.
"We now make it a part of our everyday conversation as opposed to something that's whispered," explained Dr. Walker. "So, 'do you need help? How are you feeling today?' and asking three questions beyond that because what is the common answer? 'Well, I'm fine.' Well really? So tell me more."
Psychologist Veronica Bell attends Mt. Zion and says the new direction and Bishop Walker's leadership have made a big difference.
"I think what he did, in essence, is normalize it from the pulpit—that what you're experiencing is real," she said. "We can pray about it but there are also resources available."
Dr. Walker has developed a referral system for Mt. Zion. Church members or anyone in the community can use it to find a counselor, psychiatrist, or support group.
"As a church, we don't have to re-create the wheel," she said. "The resources are out there. We have the people, they have the resources. We serve as the connectors."
Mt. Zion makes sure its people know how to help, ask the right questions, and not let go when someone is hurting.
"It's not an option to leave you. It's not an option to hang up the phone," said Dr. Walker. "It's not an option to tell you 'we can't help you.' Where do I need to send you next? They're trained to figure out immediately, in that moment, what are the next steps in terms of getting that person help and getting that person connected."
Flash forward to 2021 and Mt. Zion is now completely virtual.
Its focus on mental health is perhaps needed more than ever given the impact of the pandemic.
The church is using its website and social media to communicate about spiritual, mental, and physical health. Fitness classes are offered online alongside uplifting content and practical help like resources on Covid-19.
Middlebrooks has gone from shame to healing and transparency. He writes about his journey in the book The Depressed Millennial.
In addition to Mt. Zion, many free mental health resources are available online.
The CDC offers a number of possibilities including hotline numbers and tips on improving emotional and physical health to encourage better mental health.