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?

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.

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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.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FAMILIES OF MASS INCARCERATION: PART 2

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FAMILIES OF MASS INCARCERATION: PART 2

In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it. 

Mental Health in the Prison System

One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”

PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”

She worries about him.

“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”

In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”

A Broken System

Navigating the multifaceted labyrinth that is the prison system can be exhausting.

Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”

She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.

Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.

“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”

PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”

PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”

Life After Release

Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.

They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.

PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.

“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.

Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”

And, she knows it could get harder.

“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”

Church as a Resource

Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?

When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.

As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.

“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”

As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.

More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.

Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.

Encourage your church to learn more and to discover what local agencies are assisting with family visitation or providing support services for children with incarcerated parents in your own community.

Read the first part of this two-part series here.

 

 

Hope in Newtown

Hope in Newtown

INNOCENCE LOST: Flowers and gifts were left at the makeshift memorial outside the high school in Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the interfaith vigil attended by President Obama following the mass shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. (Photo: Bill Shettle/Newscom)

In light of the recent tragic events in Newtown, our country has started asking questions. Could stricter gun control laws have prevented this and other tragedies? Has taking God out of school caused Him to go with the “hands off” approach, allowing evil acts to occur? What kind of impact do violent video games have on the psyche of young men and women? Is our nation appropriately dealing with issues of mental health? Where’s the national outrage when kids are killed on the south side of Chicago? All viable questions, but are we asking the right one?

How do we offer hope in a world that becomes increasingly hopeless? President Obama opened his speech in Newtown with a passage from the fourth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth:

“Scripture tells us ‘…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’”

After looking at my Twitter and Facebook feed, one thing was for sure: His words touched a great number of people who tuned in to listen. The president offered words of comfort for a hurting nation. In my Berean zeal, however, I felt like something was missing — the object of our hope. I’m not here to argue the merits of whether or not America is a Christian nation, though increased pluralism tends to suggest otherwise. I do know what hope looks like, though. Hope isn’t some abstract concept. Hope is real; it’s tangible. Hope was wrongly convicted and sentenced to an agonizing death. Hope is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. In fact, that building from God, that eternal house Paul talked about in Scripture the president quotes is built on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As sermonic as President Obama’s speech sounded, I don’t expect politicians to preach in these instances. But when Scripture is quoted to bring hope, especially in this season, we need to take the opportunity to remind everyone of the object of our hope.

Mr. President, I respectfully submit that a few verses earlier in the text would have helped immensely:

“… knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14, ESV).

That’s where our true hope lies: in Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection. The Scriptural language the president used must be contextualized, or the text loses its meaning. Paul was writing to a people who had experienced similar hurts, heartaches, and pains. As a Gentile nation, other gods the Corinthians served offered little solace. But the small community of believers at Corinth could tell another story. Those hurts and pains paled in comparison to the glory that awaited them in Christ Jesus. They had a God who had experienced the same thing. And THAT’S what brings hope. THAT’S why I don’t lose heart in tragedies like this. Regulations are fine. Dialogue on the danger of video games is probably necessary. But we can’t lose sight of this simple, yet profound truth. Jesus Christ is our only hope. He’s the hope of glory. In a season of Advent (i.e. waiting), I echo the words of John as he closes the canon of Scripture — Come, Lord Jesus!

Is Anti-White Racism Growing?

Is Anti-White Racism Growing?

Given that court cases claiming reverse discrimination have been litigated since the 1970s, perhaps it’s not surprising that a new study shows whites think they are more discriminated against than blacks. Combine this finding with a host of other new facts and figures, however, and you get a lot of evidence suggesting these whites need a reality check.

The study was conducted by Tufts University psychology professor Samuel Sommers and Harvard Business School professor Michael I. Norton. They found that both blacks and whites believe racism against blacks has declined in the last 60 years, but whites believe the situation is now reversed, with racism against them surpassing racism against blacks.

In a nation-wide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites, some 11% of whites gave anti-white bias the maximum rating on the scale, while only 2% of whites gave the maximum rating for anti-Black bias. Sommers and Norton found no significant variation for other demographic factors like respondent age or education. They also said “whites linked lower levels of anti-black bias with higher levels of anti-White bias.”

“This emerging perspective is particularly notable because by nearly any metric—from employment to police treatment, loan rates to education—statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans,” the researchers concluded.

Coincidentally, last week Gallup published results of a poll that indicated 30 percent of African Americans think unemployment is the nation’s biggest problem while only 19 percent of whites think so. (Senior citizens and those earning less than $30,000 per year also named unemployment as the top problem, while Americans overall said it is the economy in general.)

Meanwhile the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on June 3 that the unemployment rate for May was “essentially unchanged” from the previous month. That rate was 16.2 percent for blacks, 11.9 percent for Hispanics, and 8 percent for whites.

An article yesterday at The Grio reported this rate as a factor in the disproportionate impact of the housing market collapse on African Americans. Other factors include “stricter credit score requirements, a severe decline in loans made to blacks, and predatory lending.”

“After peaking at 50 percent in 2006, the African-American home ownership rate has now fallen to 44.8 percent, Census Bureau data show. By comparison, the home ownership rate for whites in the U.S. is 74.1 percent, and the nation’s overall home ownership rate currently stands at 66.4 percent,” the article said.

Additionally, “The Center for Responsible Lending calculates that about 11 percent of African-American homeowners are in some stage of foreclosure, and that 1.1 million black families will lose their homes by 2012.” If the Qualified Residential Mortgage Rule that is being recommended by Federal regulators is signed into law, buyers will be required to put at least 20 percent down when purchasing a house, sending home ownership further out of reach for many Americans no matter their race, The Grio reported.

Finally, in our statistical mash-up, Psych Central reports that researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California interviewed 1,271 black men and found that they reported better mental health overall than whites, but the kinds of realities reported in these other statistics threaten it.

The National Survey of American Life: Coping with Stress in the 21st Century indicates that “lower socioeconomic standing including lower levels of education, unemployment and poverty were associated with poorer mental health status” in black men, but “only one out of 20 respondents reported major depressive disorder during the previous 12-month period,” and only 3 percent indicated the presence of serious psychological distress. “Overall, these prevalence rates are relatively low compared to non-Hispanic whites,” Psych Central concluded. (It’s important to note, however, that African Americans are less likely to seek and receive quality treatment for mental health concerns.)

Is there anything significant to be derived from the fact that whites think they’re being discriminated against more than blacks, while blacks actually are but report better mental health overall? Tell us what you think.

Recession Depression

Recession Depression

"People who are stressed about money feel depressed, hopeless, and overwhelmed," says therapist LaTonya Mason. "It's hard for them to get out of bed in the mornings. They feel like they’re not holding up their end of the bargain."

As the recession continues to devastate our economy, one of the few professions benefiting from the downturn is the mental health industry. This sad irony is highlighted by media reports of suicides related to people’s financial situations. One Johns Hopkins University sociologist has even calculated that for every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, there’s an additional 47,000 deaths from suicides, heart attacks, homicides, and alcohol consumption.

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