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Embracing mental illness

on November 8, 2010

“We were playing a basketball game. I can remember it vividly,” The Reverend Dr. Alvin Bernstine said, recalling the warning signs that his nephew had a mental illness. “It was like he was playing the game all by himself.”

Sitting in his upstairs office at the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, the senior pastor paused, looked down at the stack of papers and books spread across his desk and searched for the words to describe his nephew.

“He would interact with me. He was incredibly athletic. But his skills were somewhere else and so that was the first sign.”

Bernstine’s personal experience with mental illness hit home when his nephew, Timothy Weston, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 14.

“He was very loving toward me, and he maintained that even throughout his illness,” Bernstine said. “But I noticed on one visit that something had shifted in him and his behavior changed.” Weston began talking to himself, Bernstine said, and he also had begun to hallucinate.

Last summer, after years of loneliness, isolation and medication, the 27-year-old Weston lost his fight with schizophrenia, and let go of life. Bernstine said the loneliness of his nephew’s condition is what ultimately killed him.

“It just dawned upon me that he had basically given up on life because that mental illness was such a lonely experience,” Bernstine said. “He knew what was going on in his head, but he also knew no one else knew. It was very lonely for him.”

Reverend Alvin Bernstine (left, in patterned sweater) listens to participants speak in the loss and grief workshop.

The 58-year-old Bernstine came to Bethlehem Missionary Baptist after serving as pastor of churches in Nashville, Tenn. and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Now his church is speaking out about mental illness in families and in the lives of the diverse community he serves.

“The goal, my goal ultimately, is to how do I empower people to do like Christ?,” Bernstine said. “Don’t be ashamed of it. We’ve got to get past the stigma of mental illness.”

What initially began as a healing gathering for the congregation has evolved into the annual Heal Conference, which welcomes the community at large.

“This year our theme is focused on mental illness and the stigma wrapped around it,” said Dr. Carole McKindley-Alvarez, a mental health commissioner for Contra Costa County and a West County health commissioner-at-large. “We did want to focus on things that contribute to mental illness, so we have two workshops that are focusing on grief and loss, and the second workshop is on substance abuse and addiction.”

Facilitator Aminta Mickles speaks about addiction at a workshop during the Heal Conference.

During the day, attendees were invited to share their own experiences of mental illness inside the church sanctuary as a panel of experts, including Bernstine, listened to concerned congregants express frustration and ask for help regarding mental illness in their own lives.

Bernstine says he felt both grief and regret after losing his nephew. “I think that I probably joined in with much of the family because we tried to shut it out. I didn’t take any responsibility for it,” Bernstine said. “I certainly won’t ever ignore mental illness ever again—not in my family or in my congregation.”

Now in his second year at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Bernstine is studying to become a marriage and family therapist through the school’s Community Mental Health program.

“I would advise people to rally around the family member,” Bernstine said. “Don’t let that be such an alone experience, not for the family and certainly not for the person experiencing the suffering because the person who is suffering feels very isolated.”

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church gospel group

During the Heal Conference, attendees enjoyed an uplifting and lively performance from the Mighty Men of Faith, a gospel group from Union City.

After a morning of workshops dealing with addictions, grief and loss, the group of about 50 broke for chicken Caesar salad and music from the Mighty Men of Faith, a gospel group from Union City.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Adriana Freasier said. “I’ve learned I’m not alone.”

Freasier, a mother and student at Contra Costa College, decided the conference would benefit her on a personal level after her high school struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I had moved from Richmond, California, to a town called Justin, Texas that literally had 300 people and they were all white. So it was a big culture shock for me,” Freasier said. “I had never been in an area with all white people. I got depressed. All my friends, I didn’t talk to them anymore.” Shortly after, Freasier enrolled in therapy and received both counseling and medication for her disorder.

Joy Forte, a 26-year-old Richmond native, says she’s seen how addiction can paralyze a community like Richmond and fuel destructive labels.

“People label children. They call them crazy, crack head, crack baby. But that’s not okay to do. And they wonder why the children act out,” Forte said. “They listen to the words that you’re saying to them. Labeling has a huge, huge impact on children from as early as preschool to adulthood because they carry all that baggage with them.”

Following the Heal Conference, Bernstine says he hopes to develop ministries in the areas of grief and addiction.

“Hopefully, our families can become as comfortable with mental illness as we are with physical illness,” Bernstine said as the sun began to shine through blinds inside his office. “That we can see depression like we can see a cold, or we can see schizophrenia like we see cancer.”


  1. Wendell Basey on November 12, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Great article. I notice, that you identify the gospel singers as a group from the
    Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. The Gospel singers are the Mighty Men of Faith from Union City Ca.

  2. Aly By on November 13, 2010 at 12:05 am

    “It just dawned upon me that he had basically given up on life because that mental illness was such a lonely experience…He knew what was going on in his head, but he also knew no one else knew. It was very lonely for him.”

    This is a very important, and very honest, statement. Thank you Reverend Bernstine, this is such an important, and often neglected topic. Part of the isolation is because we the so-called “sane” peeps have not been historically empowered to deal with mental illness publicly. It was institutionalized for so long — 2010 is a good year to end the isolation!

    I work near a homeless shelter, and some folks who don’t stay in the shelter but nearby in cars and trucks, or tents, all around appear to have mental illness. What I have discovered with a couple of individuals who are obviously on the street as a result of severe mental illness, is that if I just listen and acknowledge what they are saying (as long as it is not paranoid/angry) give eye contact and smile or nod my head, there is appreciation. I have even gone so far as to rapport back, in ways congruent with their level of acceptance of it. It has proven successful in that slowly but surely, I have made connections with individuals who others in the neighborhood cross to the other side of the street to avoid.

    Thank you again Reverend, may the community heal together.

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