Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Clergy Academy' trains recruits on mental health

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80385 full

In immigrant circles, depression and other mental health issues often carry heavy stigma. Those in crisis may forgo treatment and instead seek help from one of the most trusted people in the community: the local clergy member.

But church leaders lack the training to treat mental health, and the help they provide is often restricted to the spiritual. 

“They just say only, “Let’s pray.' And that’s about it," said Young Ahn, a mental health services coordinator for Los Angeles County.

To better equip faith leaders in immigrant communities, the county's Department of Mental Health this year officially launched a program called 'Clergy Academy.' Pastors and clergy who go through the 12 courses earn a certificate.

More than 30 clergy and community members showed up at the agency's Koreatown offices Thursday for a lesson on how to talk to people struggling with stress and mental health issues.

Always be respectful, Ahn said. Never accuse.

"Communicate effectively – that’s the main point," she said.

Participants in "Clergy Academy" act out scenarios in which pastors might have to help church members struggling with mental health issues. From (l. to r.) Sister Mary Yun, Edward Godinez and Randy Carrillo.

(Participants in "Clergy Academy" act out scenarios in which pastors might have to help church members struggling with mental health issues. From (l. to r.) Sister Mary Yun, Edward Godinez and Randy Carrillo.)

Ahn urged her audience to refer church members to mental health services, and to take advantage of multilingual hotlines.

Lack of access to interpreters is one of the barriers to treatment for immigrants, according to the American Psychological Association.

So are powerful cultural beliefs.

"For the Latino community, they see mental health as a weakness," said Edward Godinez, a volunteer chaplain at a hospital in Arcadia. "Because of the machismo they won’t admit to the weakness."

Ahn said that among Korean immigrants, acknowledging mental illness is like bringing shame onto the family or "losing face."

Sometimes clergy must get over their own biases, said Thomas Finley, clergy member at the Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles.

Finley said he wanted to learn about all the mental health resources available. 

"It's part of my mission to heal the whole person," Finley said.

At 'Clergy Academy,' spiritual help is welcome, but so are talk therapy and medication if needed.

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