Wilma Mayfield used to visit a senior center in Durham, North Carolina, four days a week and attend Lincoln Memorial Baptist Church on Sundays, a ritual she’s maintained for nearly half a century. But over the past 10 months, she’s seen only the inside of her home, the grocery store and the pharmacy. Most of her days are spent worrying about COVID-19 and watching TV.
It’s isolating, but she doesn’t talk about it much.
When Mayfield’s church invited a psychologist to give a virtual presentation on mental health during the pandemic, she decided to tune in.
The hourlong discussion covered COVID’s disproportionate toll on communities of color, rising rates of depression and anxiety, and the trauma caused by police killings of Black Americans. What stuck with Mayfield were the tools to improve her own mental health.
“They said to get up and get out,” she said. “So I did.”
The next morning, Mayfield, 67, got into her car and drove around town, listening to 103.9 gospel radio and noting new businesses that had opened and old ones that had closed. She felt so energized that she bought chicken, squash and greens, and began her Thanksgiving cooking early.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “The stuff that lady talked about [in the presentation], it opened up doors for me.”
As Black people face an onslaught of grief, stress and isolation triggered by a devastating pandemic and repeated instances of racial injustice, churches play a crucial role in addressing the mental health of their members and the greater community. Religious institutions have long been havens for emotional support. But faith leaders say the challenges of this year have catapulted mental health efforts to the forefront of their mission.
Some are preaching about mental health from the pulpit for the first time. Others are inviting mental health professionals to speak to their congregations, undergoing mental health training themselves or adding more therapists to the church staff.
“COVID undoubtedly has escalated this conversation in great ways,” said Keon Gerow, senior pastor at Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia. “It has forced Black churches — some of which have been older, traditional and did not want to have this conversation — to actually now have this conversation in a very real way.”
At Lincoln Memorial Baptist, leaders who organized the virtual presentation with the psychologist knew that people like Mayfield were struggling but might be reluctant to seek help. They thought members might be more open to sensitive discussions if they took place in a safe, comfortable setting like church.
It’s a trend that psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, who gave the presentation, has noticed for years.
Through her nonprofit organization, the AAKOMA Project, Breland-Noble and her colleagues often speak to church groups about depression, recognizing it as one of the best ways to reach a diverse segment of the Black community and raise mental health awareness.
This year, the AAKOMA Project has received clergy requests that are increasingly urgent, asking to focus on coping skills and tools people can use immediately, Breland-Noble said.
“After George Floyd’s death, it became: ‘Please talk to us about exposure to racial trauma and how we can help congregations deal with this,’” she said. “‘Because this is a lot.’”
Across the country, mental health needs are soaring. And Black Americans are experiencing significant strain: A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer found 15% of non-Hispanic Black adults had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days and 18% had started or increased their use of substances to cope with pandemic-related stress.
Yet national data shows Blacks are less likely to receive mental health treatment than the overall population. A memo released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration this spring lists engaging faith leaders as one way to close this gap.
The Potter’s House in Dallas has been trying to do that for years. A megachurch with more than 30,000 members, it runs a counseling center with eight licensed clinicians, open to congregants and the local community to receive counseling at no cost, though donations are accepted.
Since the pandemic began, the center has seen a 30% increase in monthly appointments compared with previous years, said center director Natasha Stewart. During the summer, when protests over race and policing were at their height, more Black men came to therapy for the first time, she said.
Recently, there’s been a surge in families seeking services. Staying home together has brought up conflicts previously ignored, Stewart said.
“Before, people had ways to escape,” she said, referring to work or school. “With some of those escapes not available anymore, counseling has become a more viable option.”
To meet the growing demand, Stewart is adding a new counselor position for the first time in eight years.
At smaller churches, where funding a counseling center is unrealistic, clergy are instead turning to members of the congregation to address growing mental health needs.
At Catalyst Church, a member with a background in crisis management has begun leading monthly COVID conversations online. A deacon has been sharing his own experience getting therapy to encourage others to do the same. And Gerow, the senior pastor, talks openly about mental health.
Recognizing his power as a pastor, Gerow hopes his words on Sunday morning and in one-on-one conversations will help congregants seek the help they need. Doing so could reduce substance use and gun violence in the community, he said. Perhaps it would even lower the number of mental health crises that lead to police involvement, like the October death of Walter Wallace Jr., whose family said he was struggling with mental health issues when Philadelphia police shot him.
“If folks had the proper tools, they’d be able to deal with their grief and stress in different ways,” Gerow said. “Prayer alone is not always enough.”
Laverne Williams recognized that back in the ’90s. She believed prayer was powerful, but as an employee of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, she knew there was a need for treatment too.
When she heard pastors tell people they could pray away mental illness or use blessed oil to cure what seemed like symptoms of schizophrenia, she worried. And she knew many people of color were not seeing professionals, often due to barriers of cost, transportation, stigma and distrust of the medical system.
To address this disconnect, Williams created a video and PowerPoint presentation and tried to educate faith leaders.
At first, many clergy turned her away. People thought seeking mental health treatment meant your faith wasn’t strong enough, Williams said.
But over time, some members of the clergy have come to realize the two can coexist, said Williams, adding that being a deacon herself has helped her gain their trust. This year alone, she’s trained 20 faith leaders in mental health topics.
A program run by the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis is taking a similar approach. The Bridges to Care and Recovery program trains faith leaders in “mental health first aid,” suicide prevention, substance use and more, through a 20-hour course.
The training builds on the work faith leaders are already doing to support their communities, said senior program manager Rose Jackson-Beavers. In addition to the tools of faith and prayer, clergy can now offer resources, education and awareness, and refer people to professional therapists in the network.
Since 2015, the program has trained 261 people from 78 churches, Jackson-Beavers said.
Among them is Carl Lucas, pastor of God First Church in northern St. Louis County who graduated this July — just in time, by his account.
Since the start of the pandemic, he has encountered two congregants who expressed suicidal thoughts. In one case, church leaders referred the person to counseling and followed up to ensure they attended therapy sessions. In the other, the root concern was isolation, so the person was paired with church members who could touch base regularly, Lucas said.
“The pandemic has definitely put us in a place where we’re looking for answers and looking for other avenues to help our members,” he said. “It has opened our eyes to the reality of mental health needs.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci and other national health leaders have said that African Americans need to take the COVID-19 vaccine to protect their health. What Fauci and others have not stated is that if African Americans don’t take the vaccine, the nation as whole will never get to herd immunity.
The concept of herd immunity, also referred to as community immunity, is fairly simple. When a significant proportion of the population, or the herd, becomes immune from the virus, the entire population will have some acceptable degree of protection. Immunity can occur through natural immunity from personal infection and recovery, or through vaccination. Once a population reaches herd immunity, the likelihood of person-to-person spread becomes very low.
The big lie is one of omission. Yes, it is true that African Americans will benefit from the COVID vaccine, but the full truth is that the country needs African Americans and other population subgroups with lower reported COVID-19 vaccine acceptability rates to take the vaccine. Without increased vaccine acceptability, we stand little to no chance of communitywide protection.
About 70% of people in the U.S. need to take the vaccine for the population to reach herd immunity. Whites make up about 60% of the U.S. population. So, if every white person got the vaccine, the U.S. would still fall short of herd immunity. A recent study suggested that 68% of white people would be willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. If these estimates hold up, that would get us to 42%.
Latinos make up just over 18% percent of the population. A study suggests that 32% percent of Latinos could reject a COVID vaccine. Add the 40% to 50% rejection rates among other population subgroups and herd immunity becomes mathematically impossible.
Further exacerbating the problem is that mass vaccination alone won’t achieve herd immunity, as the effect of COVID vaccines on preventing virus transmission remains unclear. Ongoing preventive measures will likely still be needed to stop community spread. As the resistance to facts and science continues to grow, the need for credible information dissemination and trust-building related to vaccines becomes more important.
My research offers some possible explanations for lower vaccination rates among Blacks. Historical wrongs, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, which ended in 1972, have played a major role in contributing to Black mistrust of the health care system. In another case, the “immortal” cells of Henrietta Lacks were shared without her consent and have been used in medical research for more than 70 years. The most recent application includes COVID vaccine research, yet her family has received no financial benefit.
African Americans also disproportionately experience unequal treatment in the modern-day health care system. These experiences of bias and discrimination fuel the problem of vaccine hesitancy and mistrust. Lower prioritization for hospital admissions and lifesaving care for COVID-19-related illness among African Americans was reported in Massachusetts in April 2020. Massachusetts subsequently changed its guidelines, yet across the U.S. there is a lack of data and transparent reporting on this phenomenon.
The current messaging of vaccine importance may seem tone-deaf to those in a community who wonder why their health is so important now, at the vaccine stage. Black health didn’t appear to be a priority during the pandemic’s first wave, when race disparities in COVID emerged.
Questioning the scientific process
Perhaps even Operation Warp Speed has had the unintended consequence of decreasing vaccine acceptance in the African American community. Some ask why wasn’t such speed applied to vaccine development for HIV, which still has no FDA-approved vaccine? As of 2018, AIDS-related illness has killed an estimated 35 million people globally. It continues to disproportionately affect people of color and other socially vulnerable populations.
If African Americans were honored and acknowledged in these COVID vaccine conversations and told “we need you” instead of “you need us,” perhaps more Blacks would trust the vaccine. I encourage our nation’s leaders to consider a radical shift in their approach. They must do more than pointing to the few Black scientists involved in COVID vaccine development, or making a spectacle of prominent African Americans receiving the vaccine.
These acts alone will likely be insufficient to garner the trust needed to increase vaccine acceptance. Instead, I believe our leaders should adopt the core values of equity and reconciliation. I’d argue that truth-telling will need to be at the forefront of this new narrative.
There are also multiple leverage points along the supply and distribution chains, as well as in vaccine administration, that could increase diversity, equity and inclusion. I’d recommend giving minority- and women-owned businesses fair, mandated access to contracts to get the vaccine to communities. This includes procurement and purchasing contracts for freezers needed to store the vaccine.
Minority health care workers should be equitably called back to work to support vaccine administration. These issues, not publicly discussed, could be transformative for building trust and increasing vaccine acceptance.
Without a radical shift in the conversation of true COVID equity, African Americans and many others who could benefit from the vaccine will instead get sick. Some will die. The rest will remain marginalized by a system and a society that hasn’t equally valued, protected, or prioritized their lives. I believe it’s time to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available? Chances are that if you’re Black you’re incredibly anxious about it. According to a recent Pew Survey, more than half of us are taking a pass for now. We remember or read about the Tuskegee experiments or Henrietta Lacks’ tissues taken in the name of science. Aside from all that, it’s hard enough to get us to go to the hospital for regular checkups and dealing with all the other health issues that we face, let alone encourage us to try something new that we don’t know much about and that scares us — a lot. Before having the chance to speak with Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, I’ll admit I was a little nervous myself. He acknowledged our history and even pointed out the irony — the Surgeon General’s office oversaw the notorious Tuskegee experiments. Below are five key points from our conversation that are solid reasons why you should consider taking the vaccine.
1) The Surgeon General is a Praying Man of Faith
SG Adams:I tell people one of the most powerful things you can do for my family and me and our country is to pray. I really do believe that. I think that we’ve gotten away from prayer, especially as the politics have ramped up. I hope we can get back to that sentiment as we approach Christmas and further away from the election.
2) He Doesn’t Believe the Current Politics Are Relevant.
SG Adams:Processes and protections are in place right now to prevent politics from harming the safety and efficacy of these vaccines. We now have data and safety monitoring boards that are independent. The company, not the federal government, decides when these vaccines move forward. It’s an independent group of people whose only job is to make sure that nothing bad happens to the study participants. We have the Office of Human Research Protections that literally was formed after Tuskegee came to light to make sure that something like that could never ever happen again.
3) The Technology is Not New
SG Adams: These are technologies that have been around for over a decade and used for other vaccines that we’re adapting to COVID. So people think we just started in a lab from scratch, and we’re rushing it. No, these technologies have been around. And I also want people to understand that I’ve been working with all of the companies — Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson — to make sure we have adequate numbers of Black and brown people enrolled in these trials so that we know that they’re safe. And we worked hard. We went from 4% African Americans in the Moderna trial to well over 10%. And it took about eight, ten weeks of hard work with their study investigators to help them recruit these people into the trials.
4) He’s Got the Trust and Support of Faith Leaders and Community Partners
SG Adams: We’re working with faith leaders like pastor T.D. Jakes. We’re working with Muslim communities and Islamic communities. We’re working with Jewish communities. We are working with influencers like T.I., the rapper. We’ve worked with the NFL. We’re trying to engage with these trusted community partners because some people aren’t going to listen to anyone from the federal government, no matter what, but they’ll listen if their pastor, their rabbi, if their Imam says, “I’ve looked at the data. I’ve talked to the surgeon general, and I feel that these vaccines are safe.”
5) We’ve Got Other Issues We’re Still Facing.
SG Adams: My wife is dealing with cancer. My brother is in a rehab facility. My mother was admitted to the hospital over Thanksgiving for a stroke. So 2020 has been a rough year. I try to help African Americans in particular and younger people out there understand that we need to get COVID under control so that we can start paying attention to other things that are taking lives in numbers that are as great or greater than COVID.
Half a million people die every year from uncontrolled high blood pressure in this country, which is twice the number of people who’ve died from COVID. We can’t afford to lose focus on uncontrolled high blood pressure for the sake of COVID. We lose a woman every 12 hours in this country from pregnancy-related complications, and they’re disproportionately Black and brown women. Two-thirds of those deaths are preventable. Unfortunately, we expect to see those numbers go up because one in four women say they have skipped a prenatal appointment because of COVID. And we know that if you get COVID and you’re pregnant, you’re more likely to end up in a hospital and on a ventilator. It’s incredibly important that we do all we can to get this virus under control, even if you aren’t personally scared of the virus because that COVID bed is a bed that’s not available for your pregnant sister or for your mother who had a stroke, or for your wife who’s got cancer.
Well-meaning advice for people freaking out about current events often includes encouragement to be patient, stay calm and keep the faith… but how on Earth are you supposed to do that amid the insanity of 2020?
While it is tempting to stay glued to your devices during this time, the never-ending doomscrolling and screen-refreshing becomes overwhelming and keeps you in a state of tension and constant vigilance. The excessive consumption of news and social media predicts poorer long-term mental health during times of crisis.
Plan some breaks where you can engage in other activities that take your mind off politics and the uncertainties we face, and allow things to feel a little more normal for a while.
2. Uncertainty doesn’t equal catastrophe
It’s hard not to know things – outcomes of elections, for instance. But not knowing shouldn’t mean that you assume the worst-case scenario has occurred. When you’re anxious (as many in the U.S. are right now), you tend to assign threatening meanings to ambiguous situations, but this tendency is neither accurate nor helpful. Jumping to catastrophic conclusions is like setting off a series of false alarms that keep you on edge and exaggerate your sense of threat.
3. Don’t retreat into bed
The feeling of deep disappointment about election results you don’t like, or apprehension about upcoming results, can trigger a desire to withdraw and hole up. While that response is natural, it tends to be counterproductive. Staying engaged in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment, pleasure or meaning can make managing this time far less painful.
4. Remember it’s happened before
While in many ways it is true that 2020 is unique and unprecedented, it’s also the case that human beings tend to be remarkably resilient, even in the face of tremendous stress and trauma. This difficult time will not last forever. Things won’t magically all get better, but time will move forward, this situation will change and you will keep putting one foot in front of the other.
5. Don’t go through this time alone
While the pandemic means you need to remain physically distant from others, this should not mean staying socially or emotionally distant. When people experience acute stress, they cope much better if they have social support.
So reach out and stay connected – whether that means texting about the latest vote count with a friend or purposefully taking a break from ruminating on current events (it’s a great chance to deeply discuss how you each feel about the new season of “The Mandalorian”).
6. Stay regular
No, I am not referring to your bowels – maintain a regular and healthy eating, sleep and exercise pattern. While recommendations for self-care may seem unimportant, attending to those basic bodily needs can go a long way toward keeping your resources sufficiently replenished so you can meet the high demands of this time. There is increasing evidence that poor sleep is closely connected to many mental and emotional health difficulties.
So stop refreshing your feed in the wee hours and try to sleep.
Moreover, it provides a sense of control. There’s so much during this time that you cannot control – there is no magic wand that speeds up vote counting in those critical contested races or makes senate run-offs in January come sooner. But taking action to improve things now for the people around you both helps others and reminds you that you can make a difference in meaningful ways.
So, bake cookies to drop off on the doorstep of the friend who is quarantined. Offer to take an item off a work colleague’s overwhelming to-do list. If you’re in a position to help, make a donation to a cause you care about. It’s a win-win.
8. Take a breath
Each person is different in what helps them to relax or feel more centered. Focusing on and slowing down your breathing, for instance, can help keep you grounded in the present moment and reduce the spiral of upsetting thoughts about what might come next.
The combination of “COVID-19 brain” plus “election brain” (along with the pain and losses of the last eight months) means few of us will be at our best right now.
There’s a lot of room between performing at 100% of your usual capacity and climbing into bed and hiding under the covers for days on end. Personally, I’m trying to average 80%. People managing greater homeschooling, economic, health, discrimination and other challenges at this time than I am may shoot for a lower percentage.
No one is making it through this time unscathed, so kindness to ourselves and others is desperately needed.
HIV primarily affects white gay men. You can contract HIV by getting tested for the virus that causes AIDS. Active church members aren’t at risk for HIV.
When NAACP researchers spent a year talking with black faith leaders in 11 cities, they found myths like these continue to circulate among their pews and pulpits. Those findings led the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to mount a campaign calling on black churches to speak out about the disease that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
The pastoral brief, sprinkled with Bible verses, includes a “modern-day parable’’ of a minister who tried to “pray the gay” out of a heterosexual man after he received his HIV diagnosis. It later quotes a Houston minister who feared being in the same room with relatives with HIV/AIDS.
The NAACP recommends partnering with health organizations on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The group compares the church’s need to address HIV to Jesus’ ministry healing the sick and advocating for the oppressed.
“As we make efforts to address the HIV crisis, the Black Church should not be a place where people experience HIV stigma and discrimination, but rather a place of healing, support, and acceptance,” the brief says.
The 66-page manual asks churches to dispel HIV myths and spread the truth. For instance, most black women get HIV through heterosexual sex, and there is no risk for transmission of HIV through testing.
“Regardless of our church activity or engagement, as long as we are having unprotected sex or sharing needles in our communities, we are at risk for contracting HIV,” the manual notes.
The NAACP urges churches to be a “safe space” for HIV prevention and treatment, even if they have to start small: “We understand that incorporating HIV activism into a spiritual setting may be perceived as a difficult process, but it is possible to begin with small steps even in the most conservative environments.”
Webinar: Taking Action This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day
Black clergy leaders are joining forces with the United Way of New York City for a new initiative designed to combat the coronavirus’ outsized toll on African Americans through ramped-up testing, contact tracing and treatment management.
Details of the new effort rests on harnessing the on-the-ground influence of church leaders to circulate resources that can better equip Black Americans in safeguarding against and treating the virus. Its rollout will begin in five major cities with initial seven-figure funding, focusing on expanded testing and public health education, with a goal of further expansion and ultimately reaching several hundred thousand underinsured or uninsured Black Americans.
The Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, said participating churches were stepping forward to serve as a “first line of defense” for the Black community against the virus.
“I’m delighted to say we are strongly together across denominational lines and, even when there may be political differences, we still stand shoulder to shoulder in meeting this crisis,” Butts said.
The coronavirus has killed more than 250,000 Americans, with hospitalizations reaching an all-time high this week as U.S. deaths from the virus reached their highest levels since the pandemic surged in the spring. The Black community has been hit hard, with an August study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that African Americans had a virus hospitalization rate 4.7 times higher and a death rate 2.1 times higher than the white population.
Sheena Wright, CEO of the United Way of New York City, highlighted that impact in describing plans to help boost the partnership’s technical and fundraising capacities.
“We are focused on really closing the opportunity gap for communities of color around the city, and we’ve certainly seen in COVID-19 the profound disparities and impact on the Black community,” Wright said, pointing to a historic “lack of investment in health institutions” that serve Black Americans.
The virus testing is set to start in January in five cities: New York, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. Among the clergy helping to spearhead the effort are the civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and a Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia.
Funding support will come from testing company Quest Diagnostics and Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit-backed public health initiative led by Tom Frieden, director of the CDC during the Obama administration.
The project is modeled in part on the strategy used by the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, founded in the 1980s to battle another epidemic that disproportionally hit Black Americans. The coronavirus initiative will involve the establishment of leadership roles at participating churches with responsibility to coordinate testing, tracing and connection of virus-positive people with health care, said Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of the AIDS commission and a partner in the new project.
The coronavirus struggle “is similar to the AIDS epidemic” in that the Black community has “been again left out, locked out of resources,” Fraser-Howze said. “We have the highest rates of death and illness. So it is time for those that lead us to understand what is going on.”__
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.