Healtheir together

Embracing Mental Health Through an Equity Lens

Freslaine Saint Louis, a youth minister at Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church in Delray Beach, FL became a trailblazer for removing the stigma and fear around mental health in Palm Beach County’s Haitian communities through Healthier Delray Beach.  This is her story.

“As a youth minister, I understand that the first place many congregants will turn when they have a problem is their pastor.  But in my Haitian church, there was resistance and fear around the term “mental health,” which conjures up images of people with severe conditions, rather than recognizing it can also describe everyday stress and anxiety.

When I became involved with Healthier Delray Beach, I saw how I could use my position at the church to increase understanding around behavioral health.  I was introduced to Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a nationally renowned eight-hour course that gives people the skills to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. I believed the training had the potential to reach the parents of my church’s 700-member congregation and teach them how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders among their children.  I saw first-hand how quickly and easily children and teens with anxiety and stress could turn to substance abuse.  I knew we couldn’t be passive. We had to have difficult conversations, or risk losing them.

Although there was resistance at first, I persevered, advocating alongside the first lady of our church who is a mental health professional. MHFA is now not only accepted, it has grown through word of mouth and parents are realizing the benefits of learning how to communicate and engage more with their children. The program has become so deeply embraced by the church that they are working on making MHFA a requirement for its leadership curriculum.

With funding from Palm Health Foundation, I became one of the first Haitian Creole-speaking MHFA trainers in Palm Beach County.  I have become a trusted resource at my church and in Haitian communities across the county, breaking through stigma while respecting my culture to promote brain health and save the lives of our children.”