"One thing that helped me was realizing and understanding that some of the greatest people in the bible experienced depression similar to myself."; said George Fleming of Allegheny Family Network's (AFN) Fathers Involved Now (FIN) program and Pittsburg pastor. We sat down with Fleming to discuss how his deep faith has impacted his mental health, how he thinks the church can embrace mental health more effectively, and how as a leader in his church he makes the mental health of himself, and the people that are a part of his church his number one priority.
In the first week of February's Parent Leadership Month, we heard the story of a mother who is an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community because of her non-binary child. Last week we heard from a mother who lost her son to a substance use disorder and now supports families with similar challenges.
For our last article of Parent Leadership Month we wanted to offer a different perspective on leadership. Fleming's viewpoint is unique because as an African American father he has had to combat toxic masculinity and cultural stigmas regarding mental health. He uses his leadership to empower fathers from across the state to "be a dad, not just a father" and has been an advocate for men being active in their children's lives and being involved through the entire process of diagnosis and managing their child's social, emotional, behavioral or mental health challenges. Using his lived experiences and sharing his story has made an impact on the men that he has worked with and he is a strong example of leadership on a daily basis.
While Fleming shows his leadership daily through his work at AFN, he is also a leader in his church as a pastor. This leadership experience has allowed him to combine his love for God and his knowledge and experience with mental health.
"People are often told, I mean I was told this too; to just pray and it will go away. This is not true clinically and faith wise. A lot of people have shame and guilt when they pray and nothing happens. Either they lose faith in their God who they think hasn't helped or they lose the desire to seek help and do something about it," said Fleming.
Initially being a leader in the church made his mental health even worse. The people of his church looked to him to be this flawless leader. "They were almost let down when I started to talk about my struggles," said Fleming. Because of the image of a perfect pastor or religious leader Fleming noted that depression and suicide rates are high in church leaders. He mentioned that religious leaders often feel like they cannot show their struggles with mental health because it will be a sign of weakness. Fleming has been able to overcome this by showing the people of his church that he is not perfect or without struggle, in fact, he is often the exact opposite. He shows them that he manages his depression and is someone any of them can go to if they relate to the challenges he shares about his own mental health struggles.
When asked how he makes mental health a priority in his church he emphasized, "Oh, it is my number one priority by far. I focus on father engagement, mental health and drug and alcohol abuse." He has decided to not listen to the stigmas that tell him that a leader of a church is supposed to be seemingly perfect, and eternally happy. Instead he is leading his church by example and makes it a point to take care of his mental health.
As Fleming mentioned the institution of church and religion, in general, have historically tried to keep mental health and mental health struggles in the dark. He thinks that it is time the light is turned on and the church reaches its hand out to bridge the gap between religion and mental health. "A lot of fear is about the unknown. A lot of people have this fear of being found out and not knowing what to do. I think churches need to make it a point to have professionals come in and have workshops about mental health and refer people for help as appropriate," said Fleming.
Fleming wants other religious leaders like himself to make mental health a priority for the people they lead. "Get honest. If needed encourage them to talk to someone they trust. If it is you that needs help lead by example and seek that help. Don't do nothing. Don't allow people to suffer. Connect them to people if you can't personally help. Connect them to a counselor so they can get help. Have mental health seminars hosted at your church. People are living in silence and shame due to the stigma of depression and it can be fatal", said Fleming.
Click here for a story of how one young girl was told to "pray her mental health struggles away" and it almost cost her her life.
With leadership comes great responsibility. These people are looking up to Fleming as someone who has an admirable knowledge of and relationship with God. While he is responsible for being a catalyst of faith for the people that listen to him every Sunday he can also use this leadership to help people going through hardships feel like they are not alone and that shame is the furthest thing they should feel. He loves the people of his church and is glad that they are able to be lead by a man who has a beautiful relationship with their Lord and is not afraid to show his struggle.
Fleming is leading by example and that is what parent leadership is all about. He is taking what he has learned at his day job at AFN, from being a father and a grandfather, being someone who has been sober for 30 years, and someone who has dealt with their fair share of depression and making a difference. Now the fathers, grandmothers, aunts, nephews, and grandkids that sit in his church every Sunday are looking up to a man who is authentically himself and ready to help each and every one of them if they needed him.
This month we saw how a mother has taken her heartbreak and used it to help families similar to hers. We had the pleasure of chatting with the mother who refuses to let the world tell her child or any child that they are less than amazing and value and now we are rounding out the month with a story that showcases a father creating a bridge between faith and mental health.
All of these leaders are what they would consider "everyday parents." But you see there is no such thing as "everyday parents" because parenthood is extraordinary, not ordinary. Every day you are tasked with molding young minds and feeding young bellies that will grow up to be our future. We hope that Parent Leadership Month showed you that you are more likely than not a leader and you don't even realize it.
If you're ready to give leadership a try check out our Parent Leadership Development Program accepting applications now through March 6, 2020.