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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

North Texas Faith Leaders Are Connecting People With Mental Health Services

Jessica Diaz-Hurtado

Faith leaders from across North Texas are getting together to explore how religious communities can open the door to conversations about mental health.

A warning to readers and listeners this story mentions suicide. If you are in crisis, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Dr. Brad Schwallled a group of religious leaders and mental health professionals in prayer. They came from across North Texas to gather at a Dallas community center for a discussion on faith and mental wellbeing.

"We pray today that this dialogue will open minds, will open eyes, in ways that will have an exponential effect," Schwall said.

Schwall is president and CEO of the Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology, which provides mental health services in Dallas. They also partner with schools, doctors offices and community groups across North Texas, targeting underserved areas.

"We believe that the best way to make mental health care accessible is to go to where people are, to work alongside others within communities," he said. "Our locations in churches are an example of that."

Local faith leaders said they face unique challenges in responding to the mental health needs of their congregations.

Rev. Dr. Irie Session is with the Gathering, a church in Dallas.

"I am coming from the social location of a black woman who is a clergywoman, navigating systems of white supremacy, structural racism as well," Session said. "The people that I serve navigate those systems as well."

For members of her church, Irie said the biggest obstacles to care are costs they can't afford and a lack of trust in the system. She said they worry that providers will "really understand who we are and understand the unique needs and challenges that we face," she said.

Religious leaders are more likely to understand those challenges, Session said. When someone comes to her in need of mental health care, she asks what they're looking for in a therapist and connects them with a provider she trusts.

Father Wade Bass with St. Monica Catholic Church has counseled families through some of life's most difficult losses, including parents who have lost children to suicide. Bass said several people have made appointments with him because of feelings of depression and anxiety.

"I think they're expecting me, with a few kind of perfectly timed words, to fix depression in about a 30-minute appointment," Bass said. "Which I've yet to do. I'm still working on that."

He's also had to make difficult decisions, like calling the police. 

"A woman came to the parish describing a plan to take her own life," he said. "She had everything lined up at home and the options were to say a quick prayer with her, or to deal with the more immediate threat to her life, and we ended up having to call [the police]. That was the only thing that I knew how to do was, basically find more immediate help."

In that case, Bass still questions whether he did the right thing.

It can be tough for faith leaders to prepare for these high-stakes interactions, said Imam Azhar Subedar with the Islamic Association of Collin County.

Subedar said so many of his conversations involve mental health that he's taken an almost clinical approach. He maintains charts on the people who make appointments with him, tracking key issues in their lives. 

"[A] majority if not all clergy members, they're not trained specifically in the field of pastoral care. We're not," Subedar said. "We have a much greater job in front of us, and our jobs continue to multiply based on the constant change in the society, in the community, the phobias, the stigmas that attack us or attack others." 

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.