Mental illness and the Black church
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson
May 11, 2021
Refreshingly, national awareness about mental health has grown over the past decade. Currently, mental health along with mental illness is being approached with more sensitivity than it previously has. Campaigns from mental health associations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have played a major role. There is also growth in the understanding that mental health is not restricted to mental illness. Historically, mental health has been equated with mental illness. As awareness about mental health and mental illness continues to expand, the faith community is showing up in the conversation.
Unfortunately, the Black church struggles with the stigma of mental illness. This struggle comes from the African American community and long-held misconceptions of mental illness. While this is a health concern, it is rooted in injustice, mistreatment, and discrimination. Stephen B. Thomas and Erica Casper in their article, “The Burden of Race and History on Black People’s Health 400 Years after Jamestown,” appropriately acknowledge that “One of the most evident manifestations of the persistent discrimination and racism that still exist today is in our health—specifically, health disparities.” COVID-19 has not only revealed the disparity of healthcare access and quality within minority groups, but the advent of the vaccine also raised justifiable mistrust concerns, particularly from the African American community. Darcell P. Scharff et. al, in their article “More than Tuskegee: Understanding Mistrust about Research Participation,” observe that among African American adults, “Mistrust [of the healthcare system] stems from historical events including the Tuskegee syphilis study and is reinforced by health system issues and discriminatory events that continue to this day.”
Communities lacking trust in healthcare institutions in general are unlikely to seek treatment for mental illness. The African American community currently has to deal with factors that impact their mental health like racism, classism, injustice, and health disparities. These factors exacerbate their mental health needs. Due to these dynamics, African American adults are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems, as Thomas A. Vance notes in his article“Addressing Mental Health in the Black Community.” Disturbingly, Vance reports that “Additionally, Black emerging adults (ages 18-25) also experience higher rates of mental health problems and lower rates of mental health service utilization compared to White emerging adults and older Black adults.” The historical record of mistreatment, discrimination and lack of treatment has contributed to the perspective the Black church has towards mental illness.
The Black church struggles with the stigma of mental illness. Due to past and present experiences with institutionalized racism in America, Black church leadership and their members have been apprehensive to collaborate with mental health agencies. However, the Black church is positioned to be a pivotal partner in supporting mental wellness in the African American community.
African Americans reportedly have a greater severity of untreated mental health disorders than any other known racial group. History purports that African Americans are more likely to rely on the elders of their churches and their own spiritual beliefs, rather than seek support from mental health professionals. Due to past and present experiences with institutionalized racism in America, Black church leadership and their members have been apprehensive to collaborate with mental health agencies.
However, the Black church is positioned to be a pivotal partner in supporting mental wellness in the African American community. This initiative will involve more than prayer. While prayer is essential and helpful, the church will have to become advocates for mental wellness. Those who are faithful should also feel confident that the church cares about their mental health enough to provide resources needed. Along with being spiritual advocates for mental wellness, the church can be helpful by normalizing mental illness through promoting mental wellness. Victor Armstrong in his article, “The Role of the Church in Improving Mental Wellness in the African American Community” is a proponent of using the term “wellness” instead of illness. This term places the focus on prevention instead of deficiency. Framing conversations on mental health through the lens of deficiency or mental defect contributes to the long-standing stigma in the African American community. Using “wellness” in the conversation about mental health reshapes the narrative around this sensitive conversation.
Churches can continue to normalize mental wellness by connecting with mental health professionals, sponsoring mental wellness workshops, and by establishing mental health support groups. For congregations that are able, having a mental health professional on staff shows that they care. Congregations that make mental health reading material and resources available crack the door open for individuals suffering from mental illness. In this current atmosphere precipitated by the pandemic, people are struggling with the loss of jobs, changes in home and life routine, disruptions, and challenges with school. These factors alone have contributed to the rise of mental health challenges, including but not limited to depression and anxiety.
To further normalize mental wellness, preaching a sermon series on mental health is beneficial. These efforts will show that the gospel not only meets the physical and emotional needs but psychological needs as well. Mental health awareness can be a year-round conversation. When this happens, it opens doors in sacred spaces and invites individuals who may feel left out.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.