The Black Church and Mental Health Support

Mental health care has not always been available to blacks in the United States due to a combination of factors. Stigma, institutional racism, misdiagnosis, and financial hardship are just a few barriers to receiving treatment. Added to these is the challenge of finding culturally sensitive vendors who are representative of black American communities.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, only one in three black Americans who need mental health care receive it. In addition, blacks with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychoses, are more likely to be incarcerated than members of any other racial/ethnic group with similar conditions.

Black counselors Keith Dempsey, S. Kent Butler, and LaTress Getter suggest that churches could play a role in helping black people access mental health support in their own communities.

“Historical, [the church] it functions as a community center, social club and training center,” they write. “The black church was also the place where African Americans sought emotional refuge from their everyday problems.”

According to the authors, there are several reasons why black people are now turning to their churches for support instead of mental health agencies. Seeking services from churches often does not impose an additional financial burden; economic hardship and inadequate insurance coverage “may force some African-Americans to seek free services from paraprofessionals at their churches or to forgo treatment for their mental health needs altogether.”

For others, “seeking professional help for emotional problems is a sign of spiritual deficiencies in one’s life.” Using their faith to improve their emotional well-being may be their first choice. In addition, turning to a mental health agency can “produce strong feelings of shame and guilt,” leading people to rely solely on the church. And many have previous connections to their churches and feel more welcome there than in a clinical setting.

Finally, what the authors describe as a “lack of ethnic matching” in the mental health industry represents a significant barrier to treatment. There are a limited number of black clinicians, and “mental health agencies that lack ethnically diverse representation struggle to understand the client’s worldview or life experience.”

Although the church may be the first or only resource that some Black Americans turn to, the authors note that seeking counseling only from clergy can be counterproductive if the mental health problem is not aligned with the church’s values. For example, “historically, the Black Church has taken a strong stance on heterosexual relationships and abstinence from sexual activity before marriage, leading some clergy to resist exploring issues such as sexuality and sexual promiscuity.”

Where clergy may be inclined to “correct” values ​​or behaviors that conflict with church teaching and use the teachings of the Bible to guide parishioners, “mental health professionals are trained to listen without judgment.”

The authors note that this need not be an “either/or” situation, pointing out that “Black churches and outside agencies have benefited from several successful collaborations.” The most notable collaborations are related to physical health and wellness, but the model can be upgraded to provide mental health care as well.

The most important part of the decision requires that health agencies be authorized to work with black churches by their clergy and take the time to become part of the community. “Establishing relationships of trust provides[s] basis for an extended conversation,” the authors write.

“Mental health professionals are more successful when they respectfully become active members of the community they serve,” the authors note. Health workers must use “culturally appropriate outreach methods within the context of the existing Black Church system.” Joining the community and “holding meetings in black churches rather than relevant agencies and institutions means partnership as well as physical presence.”

In addition, clergy can receive mental health training, and more research can be conducted to determine what other methods might best support black church members.

Dempsey, Butler and Gether hope these collaborations will better support black Americans as untreated mental illness in their communities continues to grow “at an alarming rate.”

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By: Keith Dempsey, S. Kent Butler, and LaTris Getter

Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1 (January 2016), pp. 73–87

Sage Publications, Inc.

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