Dr. William M. Young

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — The church has long been an anchor in the Black community. But can the church provide respite from stress, tension and difficult situations, including mental and emotional distress?

There’s more to the church than worshiping and praying, a local clergyman explained, particularly when the current problem is a virus that has infected millions, killed tens of thousands, separated loved ones, and now triggering widespread depression.

The novel coronavirus is ravaging this country and shattering lives. “Praying is not enough,” said Dr. William M. Young, senior pastor of The Healing Center Full Gospel Baptist Church in the Oakhaven community in South Memphis.

“If I’m having a heart attack, I don’t look for scripture and verse before I try to get some help,” he said. “You can pray, but you need prayer and therapy. When a person is depressed, just praying for them is not enough.” 

Dr. Young understands the church has to do more than save souls. In his role as senior pastor, he believes a holistic approach is needed to “take care of the mind, body and spirit.”

His first job was in 1977 at Western Mental Health Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Bolivar, Tenn. He was the first Black chaplain there and also was the first Black chaplain on staff at Methodist Healthcare in Memphis in 1981.

“I’ve been in this field for 47 years,” said Dr. Young, who is licensed by the state of Tennessee as a marriage and family therapist, professional counselor, and as a clinical pastoral counselor.

His expertise enables him to provide counseling and therapy to those in the church, as well as the unchurched struggling to overcome addiction, stress, anxiety, anger, family violence, grief and loss.

The daily stressors and tension that one generally suffers from prompted Dr. Young and his co-pastor, Rev. Dianne P. Young, to launch The Healing Center Wellness & Stress Clinic of Memphis, which addresses physical and emotional health. 

The clinic opened in 1999 on the grounds of the church. After a slow start, the Youngs eventually formed a partnership with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, local government, Memphis Area Legal Services, and the West Cancer Center.

“We wanted to have a church that would encompass the many faceted needs of our community,” said Dr. Young, denouncing the naysayers who may not believe there’s a connection between counseling and spirituality, or that the mind often needs therapy. 

“As pastoral therapists, we’re trained for the mind,” he said.

In 2008, the Youngs received a grant from the state of Tennessee and opened the Emotional Fitness Centers of Tennessee, a network of 10 faith-based counseling centers and two satellite sites providing access to mental health care and substance abuse screenings in the African-American community. 

They also provide COVID-19 testing. In Tennessee, for example, more than 366,000 people have contracted the virus as of Nov. 29. More than 2,000 have been hospitalized and more than 4,500 have died.

The statistics are alarming. People fear the inevitable – an ongoing surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths – and more disruptions in their lives. Additional restrictions may soon follow.

“There is a thing called COVID overload, where you’re just stressed out with the many restrictions we have,” Dr. Young said. “The financial stress and strain are taking a toll on many people.” 

Before COVID, the number of people grappling with emotional distress had increased significantly. Lives literally hung in the balance and prompted a response from the Youngs. 

In 2003, they organized the first National Suicide and the Black Church Conference at The Healing Center to create awareness of the prevalence of suicide among African Americans. 

“That (conference) was based upon a lady in our church who took her life,” Dr. Young said. “She had asked for counseling. We were going to see her on that Monday. Early that Monday, she got up under the cross, took a pistol and ended her life.”

It happened in 2002 near the front entrance of the church, under a 20-foot cross suspended above the facade. Since then, the suicide conference has sparked interest all over the country. 

The first conference drew about 50 people to The Healing Center. Ten years later, after the Youngs formed a partnership with UTHSC, the biennial conference attracted more than 500 people.

The Black community is just as prone to suicide as the White community, Dr. Young said. “We were still saying that Black people don’t commit suicide because they’re stronger than the Whites. [But] we concluded that all people take their lives…”

Suicide is triggered by depression, emotional turmoil, he said. The common denominator is pain. “Just like a person wants to get physically fit, we developed a concept of emotional fitness.”

He said emotional fitness is the key to dealing with the coronavirus and other vexing problems causing undue stress and mental anguish. It is, likewise, the key to the growing suicide rate. 

“The one thing that keeps people going is hope,” the pastor/counselor said. “Hope is intangible. But it’s the expectation that something better is going to come.”