Americans are in a mental health crisis – especially African Americans. Can churches help?

Americans are in a mental health crisis – especially African Americans. Can churches help?

The 160-year-old John Wesley AME Zion Church is one of the few predominantly African American churches that still exists in downtown Washington, D.C. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Brad R. Fulton, Indiana University

Centuries of systemic racism and everyday discrimination in the U.S. have left a major mental health burden on African American communities, and the past few years have dealt especially heavy blows.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Black Americans are twice as likely to die of COVID-19, compared with white Americans. Their communities have also been hit disproportionately by job losses, food insecurity and homelessness as a result of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, racial injustice and high-profile police killings of Black men have amplified stress. During the summer of 2020, amid both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, a CDC survey found that 15% of Black respondents had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days,” compared with 8% of white respondents.

For a variety of reasons, many African Americans face barriers to mental health care. But as a sociologist who focuses on community-based organizations, I find that strengthening relationships between churches and mental health providers can be one way to increase access to needed services. In research with my collaborators Eunice Wong and Kathryn Derose, I analyzed data on the prevalence of mental health care provision among religious congregations and found that many African American congregations offer such programs.

Need versus access

Roughly 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. Yet fewer than half of adults with a mental health condition receive mental health services.

African Americans utilize mental health services at about one-half the rate of white Americans. In part, this underuse may stem from African Americans’ often fraught relationship with medical establishments in the U.S., given their histories of racial bias and malpractice against people of color. Part of the reason may also derive from stigma among some African Americans perceiving mental illness and seeking help as signs of weakness. Treatment “deserts” where mental health providers are scarce may also be a factor.

Students participate in an activity about mental health and suicide prevention at Uplift Hampton Preparatory School in Dallas.
Students participate in an activity about mental health and suicide prevention at Uplift Hampton Preparatory School in Dallas in 2018. AP Photo/Benny Snyder

Care at church

One often overlooked resource for mental health care, however, are churches. For the past decade, the National Congregations Study has documented the prevalence of mental health care provision among places of worship in the U.S. Based on data from the NCS’ 2018 survey, 26% of congregations provide mental health programming, and 37% of people who attend religious services attend one of these congregations. Such programming can include support groups, meetings and classes focused on addressing mental health concerns.

Previously, my co-researchers and I analyzed 2012 NCS data to better understand mental health resources within religious congregations. One of our goals was to identify factors that contribute to a congregation offering mental health care. These factors include having more members, employing staff for social service programs and providing health-focused programs. Other significant predictors include conducting community needs assessments, hosting speakers from social service organizations and being located in a predominantly African American community.

Based on the new 2018 survey, 45% percent of African American congregations offer some form of mental health service and nearly half of all African American churchgoers attend a congregation with such programs. These rates show an increase since 2012, and are roughly 50% greater than those among predominantly white congregations.

This research supports longstanding observations about African American congregations as critical sources of spiritual, emotional and social support for their communities. Many religious people see their spiritual health and mental health as intertwined, and research indicates that spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, can also support mental health.

Strengthening support

Our research suggests that building collaborations between African American congregations and the mental health sector is a promising strategy to increase access to needed services. Given that 61% of African Americans say they attend worship services at least a few times a year, congregations may provide an accessible resource.

At times, pairing religion and mental health may prove harmful. Some congregations see mental health problems as a product of personal sin, for example, and stigmatize people suffering from mental illness.

[This week in religion, a global roundup each Thursday. Sign up.]

But congregations can also be helpful environments. When clinical treatment is supplemented with social support, the likelihood of successful outcomes is greater, and houses of worship often provide built-in social networks. People participating in a congregation-led grief recovery group, for example, can be involved in the congregation beyond their weekly meeting. In addition, some mental health professionals provide pro bono services for congregation-based programs.

Social worker Victor Armstrong, the director of North Carolina’s Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, asserts that African American faith leaders can play a “pivotal role” in mental wellness. He suggests shifting language to focus on “wellness” rather than “illness” in order to decrease stigma, among other recommendations.

Greater collaboration between congregations and mental health providers could help stem the growing mental health crisis, particularly within African American communities.The Conversation

Brad R. Fulton, Associate Professor, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nearly half of all churches and other faith institutions help people get enough to eat

Nearly half of all churches and other faith institutions help people get enough to eat

Nearly half of all churches and other faith institutions help people get enough to eat

A church in St. Paul, Minn., distributed food obtained through a USDA program in December 2020. Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Brad R. Fulton, Indiana University

Almost half of U.S. congregations participate in some kind of food distribution program. While the government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program was helping nearly 42 million Americans purchase groceries in mid-2021, those benefits often don’t cover the full food costs of people facing economic hardship. And not everyone who needs food is eligible for those benefits.

Food banks, food pantries, meal programs and similar initiatives run by churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based institutions are among the charitable organizations seeking to fill this gap.

As a social scientist who studies the economic impact of community-based organizations, I have seen even small efforts by local congregations make an outsized difference for people who are experiencing food insecurity – meaning they can’t get enough nutritious food to eat.

Building on my research with Karen Flórez and Kathryn Derose, I have tracked the important role congregations play in getting food to the people who need it. I analyzed data collected through the National Congregations Study – a nationally representative survey of congregations.

This data indicates that in 2018, 48% of U.S. congregations either had their own food-distribution program or supported efforts run by another organization, such as a food bank or food pantry. That’s over 150,000 congregations.

Unlike government programs, these faith-based efforts generally provide help immediately to anyone who shows up, with no questions asked. For example, the Laboratory Church in Indianapolis runs a mobile food pantry. Like most congregation-based food programs, it requires “no qualifications” or extensive paperwork to receive food.

Growing needs

The share of households in this country experiencing food insecurity has ranged from 10% to 15% since 1995. Surprisingly, the problem did not worsen in 2020 despite the economic upheaval triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The share of food-insecure households stood at 10.5% in 2020, the same level as a year earlier.

One major reason why food insecurity didn’t grow was that the government stepped up. It distributed several rounds of relief and stimulus payments, spent more on SNAP and expanded unemployment benefits.

That aid increase is now drying up. The federal government ended the extra jobless benefits that were keeping many families afloat. States are also starting to put SNAP benefits back on a sliding scale, rather than giving everyone who gets them the maximum level allowed.

With additional help waning and inflation rising, the Biden administration is boosting aid to those in need by permanently increasing the average SNAP benefits above pre-pandemic levels.

However, that change won’t help people who aren’t eligible for those benefits, including immigrants and refugees who have been in the country legally for less than five years.

Some congregations focus on serving immigrants by providing legal assistance, language instruction or help finding jobs. These congregations are the most likely to have food programs: 66% of them are addressing food needs, compared to 48% nationally.

On a scale small and large

Congregational food programs come in all sizes.

Consider Crossroads Community Baptist Church in Whitley City, Kentucky, one of the poorest communities in America. The population of this Appalachian town is about 1,200 people, and the church’s food ministry, the Lord’s Café, gives free groceries to about 400 families. Also, when local kids are out of school in the summer, it feeds lunch to 250 children a day, three days a week.

The Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, a megachurch, operates on a bigger scale. It plans to deliver more than 100,000 Thanksgiving meals to those in need in 2021.

[Over 115,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

And Christian churches aren’t the only faith-based groups stepping up to feed the hungry. At the East Plano Islamic Center in Texas, local residents can pick up what they need from a drive-thru food pantry every Saturday. Similarly, Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas, a Reform Jewish congregation, partners with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to homebound, disabled and other people who need them.

These efforts are motivated by compassion for the hungry. As the economy bounces back, the government will keep playing a vital role in meeting the needs of Americans. So will thousands of local congregations whose efforts and impact often go unacknowledged.The Conversation

Brad R. Fulton, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.