Historically, the Black church has played a major role in the fight for civil rights and equality. And today, many African Americans still find solace in their local church community. According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 47% of African Americans attend church at least once a week. 

“Most Black Americans pray regularly, and prayer plays a variety of roles in their lives,” the report stated.

Many churchgoers rely on their pastors not only for spiritual guidance, but for help with their mental health problems. 

“When you are Black, you are inherently distrusting of the [mental health] system,” said Dawanda Davis, a licensed counselor. “On the other hand, a lot of Black people are extremely trusting of their pastor and church elders.”     

Davis and her husband Edward, who is pursuing a doctorate in community care and counseling, are two South Side natives and ordained ministers who work with The Word Worship Center, a nondenominational church in South suburban Park Forest. After finding out Davis’ occupation from the church’s member directory, their pastor Claude Ambrose reached out, asking the couple to be ambassadors for the church in the area of mental health.

When other church members saw Davis listed as a licensed counselor, some began to seek her advice.

“I’ve had quite a few members approach me when they saw what I do for a living,” Davis said. 

They turned to her for help, partly because of her status as a prominent member of the congregation, but also knowing that, as a licensed professional, she was obliged to keep their conversations confidential, something mandated under the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act

“Having someone they know they can trust can make a huge difference in getting people comfortable with talking about their issues,” Davis said.

The Word Worship Center’s program, known simply as the Mental Health Ministry to the congregation, began in the summer of 2019 and has served as an introduction to mental health treatment for most who participate.


Davis offers three individual pro bono sessions for church members. On rare occasions, when it doesn’t eat up too much of her schedule, she has provided the same pro bono service for up to six weeks. 

She provides those who need further help with resources outside of the ministry, including a referral to her private practice, The Transformation Specialists, a virtual counseling service. She also introduces them to Psychology Today’s directory of Black therapists for those who prefer in-person treatment. 

“Psychology Today’s directory is an invaluable resource that most people don’t know about,” Davis said. “It allows you to find a therapist or counselor you feel comfortable with, whether it be someone of your same ethnicity, or religion or sexual orientation.”

For Davis, the drive to help others suffering with mental trauma started young. 

“Mental illness runs in my family,” she said. “In 2008 a situation happened with my mom. She suffers from delusions, and I ended up in counseling.” 

Her mother’s deteriorating mental condition and the damage it wrought on her family left Davis struggling with her own trauma. This exposure to treatment sparked her lifelong interest in mental health. It also made her realize how woefully under-treated many Black Americans with mental illness are. 

“Counseling was something Black people just didn’t do,” Davis said, describing her first time in counseling. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘why is this not something that we have access to? Why is this not the norm?’”

Resistance to seeking treatment, or even admitting that they have a problem is the first hurdle that many find too hard to navigate. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “63% of African Americans view mental health conditions as a consequence of personal weakness. As a result, people may experience shame about having a mental illness.”     

Davis said talking to the wider church community has been more challenging, however. 

“The church as a whole is not aware of the purpose or the benefit of counseling. Many churchgoers and pastors don’t believe that a Christian can fully love God and be committed to Him while at the same time be struggling with a mental disorder,” she said.

This showcases a continued problem within the church that dismisses evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, organizational skills training, and family therapy in favor of spiritual ones.


“The common thing is to attach mental illness to a spirit,” Davis said. “They don’t understand that it can be genetic, environmental, or related to trauma.  A lot of people think you just need to pray more, read your bible, and slap some oil on you and you’ll be alright.”

Despite these challenges, the Davis couple have a hopeful outlook for the future of the church. 

“The church has adapted in many ways. It has broadened the way it reaches out to people,” her husband Edward said. “When I was coming up, the church did everything from hosting community events to sermons on the radio. We even had people going door-to-door handing out flyers. And some churches still do that, but we have broadened our horizons by catching up to the social media age and reaching more and more people that way as well as through our mental health ministry.” 

Davis echoes this sentiment. 

“If you truly care about the people you serve, you have to do so holistically. You have to see that all their needs are met. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually,” she said.

is a freelance writer from the Auburn Gresham area. He writes fiction and nonfiction, mostly centering on or set in Chicago.