In the US, Local Church Helps Drag Mental Illness Out of the Closet

The “Living Legends Awards” 2017 create awareness of Christians and mental health

Lael Caesar
In the US, Local Church Helps Drag Mental Illness Out of the Closet

“When I was diagnosed in 2001 with clinical depression, I was ashamed.” These were the words of Richard Smallwood, celebrated Christian musician and author of such gospel classics as “Healing,” and “Total Praise,” at the Emmanuel Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland, United States, on February 25. “It was a triple strike, as an African-American, as an African-American male, and as an African-American church-goer.”

Smallwood was one of the 2017 recipients of the “Living Legends Awards for Service to Humanity,” in a special ceremony which honored outstanding people who in the past have struggled with mental illness. The other 2017 recipients were philanthropists and business owners Lois and Leroy Peters, and Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist, professor, and author.

People Who Talk About It

Doreen Hines, executive director of the Living Legends Awards Foundation, responsible for the awards, explained the golden thread that connects the 2017 honorees. “They have all been touched by mental illness,” she said in a video message recorded days before the ceremony. “But they have been bold enough to speak up about it.”

In her video message, Hines made clear the significance of this year’s ceremony, as she invited people to join her “to come out of the shadows together.”

“[We need] to remove the stigma of mental illness within our faith and ethnic community,” said Hines, a member of the Emmanuel Brinklow Church, a traditionally African-American Seventh-day Adventist congregation.

And this is exactly what happened during the ceremony when the honorees and others shared their journey from mental illness to regained health. Live music during the event was provided by the Living Legends Awards Singers with Camerata, Lulu Mupfumbu, conductor, and the New England Ensemble, based at Washington Adventist University, in Takoma Park, Maryland. Ensemble director Preston Hawes who succeeded legendary founder-director Virginia Gene Rittenhouse, gave first-hand testimony to the challenge of mental illness in his own life years ago.

“I found that compelling,” said Lael Caesar, associate editor of the Adventist Review at the General Conference, who attended the gala, “to think that the orchestra was not there just for its music, but because its illustrious director was also willing to share his personal testimony of his struggle with mental illness.”

A Tradition of Service and Care

Now in its 12th year, the “Living Legends Awards for Service to Humanity” event honors people who have made important contributions to fellow human beings. Among previous honorees are Wintley Phipps (2014), a Seventh-day Adventist singer and pastor who has performed for several US presidents, and Leymah Gbowee (2010), a peace activist who a year after receiving the “Living Legends Award” went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, the Saturday evening ceremony was followed by a Mental Health Fair a day later, on the campus of Washington Adventist University. Under the theme “Shine from the Inside,” this free event cosponsored by Adventist HealthCare invited people to “come” and “talk about it”—to openly discuss the harmful thoughts and actions anyone can be beset by, and find ways towards mental wellness and hope. Led by India Medley, around 70 people spent four hours discussing depression, suicide, and other mental health issues affecting even faithful Christians.

Leaving a Mark

When dealing with mental illness, the essential thing is to connect with the people suffering, inviting them to go out and look for help, believes Kay Redfield Jamison, one of the 2017 honorees, and an academic who has been described as perhaps the most well known writer on manic illness. “People don’t get treatment because people keep quiet,” said Jamison, who has been both patient and clinician. “Because of the silence, people have no idea that mental illness can be treated.”

Organizers consider this to be a major reason why events such as this one can be invaluable for connecting with people on a deeper level in order to help them. As Leymah Gbowee, the 2010 Living Legends honoree and Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2011 once put it, “You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe.”

The Living Legends Awards, its supporters, and its host church, Emmanuel Brinklow have found a way to make footprints of care and service that will endure the test of time.

Lael Caesar contributed to this story.

Lael Caesar