How Churches Are Addressing the Mental Health Needs of the Black Community

How can religious institutions improve the mental health of underserved communities?

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In the black community, faith leaders often play an important role in health and healing. As mental health becomes a growing concern among all populations, religious leaders are recognizing their place not just as spiritual counselors, but also as critical resources for their congregants’ emotional and psychological needs.

Historically, churches that serve the black community haven’t just functioned as houses of worship. Black churches have also served as broader community resource centers, fostering social engagement, encouraging political organization, and providing a space for worship, says Professor Norissa Williams, who works in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Applied Psychology and serves as a clinical assistant professor for the online master of arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness program.

“It stands to reason that [the church] can be a place that is well-resourced to be able to meet the needs of the congregants and provided with more education on mental health,” Williams says. Yet mental illness remains a taboo subject for many populations, including black communities—often preventing those experiencing distress from seeking help or confiding in others about depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in 2016, almost one in five US adults were living with mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, major depression, and schizophrenia. Black people were 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, in part because they wait to seek help.

Black people were 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites, in part because they wait to seek help.

“Black people may be overwhelmed and overworked and have a lot of chronic stressors, but they’re more likely to normalize and accept it as part of life,” Williams notes. In cases where black people do seek treatment, they may face barriers such as cost, transportation, childcare, and reliance on the emergency room—all very practical concerns for the black population. But black people may also feel disempowered due to stigma or cultural distance if they’re seen by practitioners who don’t understand their experience as people of color.

“Black women and black men are expected to be strong, resilient,” Williams adds. “If there’s some weakness, then that goes against the whole cultural paradigm of strength—the cultural paradigm that is projected on to us, as well as what we have ascribed to.”

That stigma may also have a religious component.

“There is sometimes this notion or belief that if you have a problem, go to prayer. If you have a problem, go to God. And if you seek other outside help, it’s because you’re weak and not trusting God,” Williams says.

Many mental health advocates say that because black faith leaders are held in such high esteem, their efforts to raise awareness and encourage members to seek help can be life-changing. Religious institutions can reduce the stigma of mental illness by offering programs and being open to ideas to help their members.

Laverne Williams (no relation) serves as director of PEWS (Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality) programs at the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. The programs are designed to train clergy and congregations to connect members to mental health resources. Laverne notes that when she was growing up in the 1960s, many black people would turn to clergy for healing related to mental health. Because psychology was not a very large part of the seminary curriculum, people were getting misinformation.

…black people would turn to clergy for healing related to mental health. Because psychology was not a very large part of the seminary curriculum, people were getting misinformation.

Perception of the issues can make a difference when encouraging leaders to become better informed. Early in her outreach efforts, Laverne Williams made what seemed like a small change to improve acceptance.

“I noticed when I said I wanted to do a training on mental illness, [the training consisted of] pretty much myself and a very few others, and that’s why I changed the phrase to ‘emotional wellness’—a whole new connotation,” she says. And more people suddenly started showing up for her sessions. “Just changing some of the language was very helpful.”

Black faith leaders have found they can raise awareness and connect people to resources by implementing mental health ministries and specially designed programs such as Mental Health First Aid  (MHFA). MHFA started in church basements, community centers, and behavioral health centers and has experienced exponential growth in the past 10 years. The eight-hour course teaches people to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use problems.

“Just like CPR or first aid, [the course trains participants in what to do] until a crisis resolves or until a person who is more trained or more adept at dealing with the situation arrives on the scene,” says Tramaine El-Amin, who oversees the program for the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Students learn the Mental First Aid Action Plan, which includes:

  1. Assessing risk of suicide or harm
  2. Listening without being judgmental
  3. Giving reassurance and information
  4. Encouraging professional and self-help.

“It’s not a substitute for counseling or medical care or peer support or other professional treatment. It just improves our ‘noticing’ skills,’” El-Amin says. MHFA has trained more than a million people, with more than five percent of the courses in faith communities: “We know that faith communities have embraced MHFA wholeheartedly. We know a number of our instructors are pastors and faith leaders,” says El-Amin. “We have a large interest and engagement from African American churches as well as other kinds of faith communities that are within the African American population.”

Churches can also look inward to find expertise.

“Is there a member of the congregation [who has training in counseling]?” says Professor Williams. “In a lot of churches there is, and so then how can we start a clinic within the church where people are well-informed and integrating what they would naturally do from their religious perspective with evidence-based practices.”

El-Amin hopes that hearing directly from religious institutions that have benefited from programs like MHFA will encourage others to prioritize mental health to reach people who might otherwise shun treatment and interventions. “For those congregations or assemblies who aren’t as open, we make sure they talk to someone who has already adopted it so they can hear about [the benefits] from their peers,” she says.

Professor Williams believes there is room for growth among churches to expand their capacity to serve those in need of help for mental health conditions. Ultimately, collaboration is key, she says, emphasizing the need for a “true egalitarian partnership that would look different everywhere, depending on the faith-based organization and community mental health center.”

This article first appeared on Counseling@NYU, NYU Steinhardt’s online master’s in mental health counseling program, and is reprinted here by permission.

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