Mind Soul

How Church Can Positively Impact Mental Health

Black Churches and Mental Health
Written by Anthony Emecheta

The United States is going through a mental health crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, the Kaiser Family Foundation partnered with CNN to conduct a poll on mental health. The result showed that a staggering 90% of Americans feel the country is going through a mental health crisis. The result was corroborated by a report in JAMA Health Forum which noted that 38% more people are in mental healthcare since the pandemic.

Research suggests that the adult Black community has a 20% more chance of experiencing symptoms of serious mental health issues including generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Also, it has been found that although young Black adults between the ages of 18 and 25 experience higher rates of mental health problems, they utilize mental health services less frequently than their White counterparts.

Several interventions have failed to produce the desired result which has left researchers scratching their heads on the next course of action. Interestingly, the church has been at the center of the Black community for centuries, uplifting spirits in time of grief and providing social and psychological support. So, is the church a missed opportunity in mental health advocacy?

Why the Black community is at a higher risk of mental illness

Systemic racism, police brutality, and violence are some of the leading factors that drive the Black community deeper into the jaws of mental illness. According to Thomas A. Vance, PhD of the Columbia University, Black people face the most negative occurrences in the United States even though they make up just 12% of the entire nation’s population.

For example, Vance noted that “the Black community comprises approximately 40% of the homeless population, 50% of the prison population, and 45% of children in the foster care system”. Studies have shown that all these factors can increase the chances of developing mental illness. These disparities have been present for generations.

Although progress has been made in recent years, there is still a stigma associated with acknowledging mental illness in Black communities. According to McLean Hospital’s Christine M. Crawford, MD, MPH, historical misconceptions have made Black communities ignore mental illness and often water its symptoms down to fatigue and stress. These nuanced descriptions have been passed down for generations and mental health conditions are often equated as weakness.

The role of the church in combating mental illness in Black communities

In Black communities, people facing psychological difficulties usually resort to religious coping methods including prayers and pastoral guidance. This means that the church has a huge role to play in combating mental illness. The role of the church in can come in one of two ways.

1. Through mutual communal trust and support

Around 80% of Blacks in the United States identify as Christians or belong to a church congregation. They use spirituality as a means of coping with social and mental problems. Each of these churches has their unique needs and culture which is handed down to their congregations.

Mental health professionals like Dr. Kimberly Arnold and Dr. Atasha Jordan of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) are working hard to get churches to imbibe mental health awareness as part of their culture. The goal is to normalize seeking mental health assistance among Black communities.

Historically, studies have found cultural mistrust and stigma as obstacles on the path of mental health services in Black communities. However, Arnold found that people of faith tend to trust each other. In other words, Black Christians will find it easier to open up to Christian healthcare providers.

Churches can organize mental health seminars and workshops anchored by professionals of the same faith knowing that the congregation will be more willing to listen to them.

2. Through the leaders of the various churches

In most Black communities, church leaders are revered, and their teachings are held in high esteem. In Black communities with high poverty and unemployment rates, families often first visit their church leaders when they have health problems for prayers—hoping for a miracle—before even seeking medical care.

Church leaders can use their position of influence to encourage their congregation to seek professional help when they show symptoms of mental illness—encouraging them that it doesn’t matter if the healthcare provider is of another race. They should let their congregation understand that mental illness is not a demonic vice, and that the solution is not more prayers but professional care.

Sadly, many churches are not promoting mental health enough which is a missed opportunity in the fight to foster healthier Black communities. Therefore, this is a wake-up call to churches to use their influence to break the stigma associated with mental illnesses in Black communities.

Dr. Bernadine Waller of the National Institute of Mental Health told ADAA that although Black communities don’t necessarily have the highest prevalence of depression and anxiety, they usually have a more protracted course of recovery because of hesitation to seek care. Therefore, providing mental health education in nontraditional settings like churches, where people in Black communities show the highest trust and dedication, will go a long way in building mentally sound Black communities.

Elevate Black Health recommends that those seeking mental health help through churches should supplement their treatment with a qualified mental health practitioner. Ask your church leader for referrals, if it helps to bolster a feeling of trust.

For more reading:

https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/conference-consumer-professional/black-church-our-refuge

https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2023/12/4/23979847/teen-mental-health-youth-suicide-prevention-black-church-religion-psychology

https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/fall-2023/americas-mental-health-crisis

https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/addressing-mental-health-black-community

https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/black-mental-health

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/11/teen-mental-health-dbt/675895

About the author

Anthony Emecheta

Anthony Emecheta holds a master’s degree in microbiology. He is a passionate educator and particularly an advocate of racial equality. He strongly believes the world will be a better place if we all see ourselves as humans first before anything else.

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