Joelle Dugue is the executive director of Village Heart Beat Inc. Photo: Jalon Hill/QCity Metro

Village HeartBEAT Inc., a faith-based nonprofit in Mecklenburg County, has launched a pilot program to provide free mental health support in underrepresented communities through a partnership with Black churches.

Created in 2019 to address a range of health disparities, Village HeatBEAT last year got $3 million in state support to launch the pilot, called Bridge to Better Mental Health.

The program is in its early stages, officials say.

Each of the seven churches participating in the pilot has agreed to host a “hub” where free mental health services are provided, including support from licensed therapists.

Joelle Dugue, Village HeartBEAT’s executive director, said the effort provides a necessary resource to those still living with mental health effects from the pandemic.

“We saw an increase in mental health needs in the community of color,” she told QCity Metro. “We wanted to invest in our mission to provide better access to behavioral healthcare services for those in need in high-priority communities.”

Why it matters: Health experts say the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated a nationwide mental health crisis. And while mental health disorders affect all races, research shows that Black Americans are less likely to receive support, mainly because of stigma and limited resources.

Addressing disparities

Dugue said it was essential that Village HeartBEAT works with Black churches because of the trust they’ve built within Black communities. 

“As we know, [in] the Black community, we go to the church for healing. We go to the church for support,” she said.

Village HeartBEAT partnered with local Black churches during the pandemic to host vaccination clinics, health screenings and Covid testing sites. 

Dugue said the organization decided it was necessary to expand on those services to include mental health support. 

The churches taking part in the pilot are:

  • Faith Memorial Missionary Baptist Church
  • First Baptist Church-West
  • Moore’s Sanctuary AME Zion Church
  • Parkwood Institutional CME Church
  • Rockwell AME Zion Church
  • St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church
  • The Heights Ministries

In 2022, Village HeartBEAT applied for a grant from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and received $3 million to kickstart the pilot last July.

The funding pays for the services of three mental health providers that contracted with Village HeartBEAT through 2025. These providers then make their therapists available to the program at no cost.

Dugue said that each participating church must have an internet service and provide a safe and dedicated space to host mental health sessions. She said the churches are also responsible for promoting the services through in-church flyers and social media. 

Dugue said Village HeartBEAT is connected with more than 50 churches in Mecklenburg County and plans to expand its mental health hubs.

What’s offered

Dugue said people needing mental health services can contact the churches or call the program’s direct line (828-582-7403) to speak with a community health worker. 

She said that the health workers take clients through a pre-screening process to discuss their needs. Clients are then connected with a mental health provider based on location and gender preference, Dugue said.

Dugue said that clients are given three free sessions, with additional sessions offered if deemed necessary by the provider.

Village HeartBEAT provides services to clients regardless of insurance status.

Balancing faith and professional support

The Rev. Ricky A. Woods, the pastor of First Baptist Church-West, has been working with Village HeartBEAT since its inception and serves as the organization’s vice-chair.

Woods said he has seen an increased need for mental health support in Black communities and that it was important for his church to serve as a hub. 

“One of the things that particularly impact African-American communities is the stigma with mental health,” he said. “I felt that the church has a role that it can play in helping to remove that stigma.” 

The Black church, Wood said, serves as a “trusted partner in the community,” making it a safe place for people to reach out for help. 

Woods said clergy often provide mental health counseling to members, but it’s important to recognize when a licensed professional is needed.

“We’ve dealt with talking with people who deal with issues related to depression [and] anxiety almost on a pretty regular basis in terms of counseling calls, “ he said.

Woods said he hopes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will someday refer people to Village HeartBEAT when officers deal with mental health calls.

He also hopes more churches will recognize the need for professional mental health support.

“I hope that we’re dealing in an environment now where clergy understands that God has provided resources for us to have access and availability to help improve ourselves, to live the best possible life we can,” he said.

How faith and therapy can coexist

Jasmine Johnson, a licensed mental health therapist not affiliated with Village HeartBEAT, said she started her career in 2020, when the pandemic drove a wave of people seeking mental health services.

In some parts of the Black community, she said, a stigma associated with mental health care has kept some people from seeking treatment, but the isolation of the pandemic forced some to acknowledge their issues. 

“For so long, we tried to cope by overworking and wearing so many hats to appear as a strong person to bypass the things we’ve experienced as trauma and things that have been passed down for generations,” she said. “Being able to sit down due to Covid and face those issues puts things into perspective.”

Johnson said that the Black community’s negative perception of therapy and a “pray it away” mindset has influenced their hesitancy to seek professional help. 

The Village HeartBEAT initiative, she said, could help combat that stigma and show how faith and licensed support can coexist.

“There is nothing wrong with using your spirituality to cope, but it’s also important to have that person who is trained clinically to also help you with those things,” she said. “Having that hub inside the church sends that message that there is nothing wrong with both.”

Jalon is a general assignment reporter for QCity Metro. He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University and an avid sports fan. (

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