The Black Church: A Sanctuary for Our Mental Well-being

Black Church: A Refuge for Mental Health Care

In Conversation with ADAA’s 2023 Conference Timely Topic Presenters: Bernadine Waller, PhD, Atasha Jordan, MBA, MD and Kimberly Arnold, MPH, PhD

The African American scholar, filmmaker and author Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his book, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, defines the Black church as more than just a place of worship. He calls it a “key refuge for many in hard times.” He writes that the Black church is “a place of racial and individual self‑affirmation, of teaching and learning, of psychological and spiritual sustenance.” The Harvard University professor refers to the Black church as “a symbolic space where Black people, enslaved and free, could nurture the hope for a better today and a much better tomorrow.”

Implementing Evidence-Based Mental Health Interventions in Black Churches

Working with Black churches to create a better today and a much better tomorrow in the field (literally) of mental health care for African Americans are three Black leaders in mental health who will present at the 2023 ADAA Conference. ADAA is excited to have Bernadine Waller, PhD, Atasha Jordan, MBA, MD and Kimberly Arnold, MPH, PhD discuss their work, research and findings in a presentation titled Implementing Evidence-Based Mental Health Interventions in Black Churches.

Addressing Stigma and Access to Mental Health Care in Black Communities

Over 80 percent of Black people in America identify as Christian with many in that percentage attending Black churches. Drs. Waller, Jordan and Arnold realize that stigma around mental health continues to exist in some Black communities and that many Black Americans are still distrustful of mental health providers or have a difficult time accessing mental health care in traditional settings.

Contending with centuries of racially-based inequities, marginalization and discrimination in mental healthcare, Black Americans have often turned to their places of worship for support. These three leaders, all of whom are connected to the Black church in some way, are employing community-engaged approaches to bring mental health care to them, at their church or within their faith-based communities.

Built by Black People for Black People

The Black church was the first institution built and run by Black people in the United States. It is not just a place of religion, but a vital part of their political, cultural, educational and social lives. It has also taken an important role in the physical and mental wellbeing of its members.

Meeting Them Humbly at the Intersection of Science and Faith

Each church has its own culture and needs, says Dr. Atasha Jordan, a fourth-year psychiatry resident at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Born in Barbados, Dr. Jordan grew up in a strong Christian Caribbean environment and continues to find ways to merge her faith with her medical profession.

“We come into the churches with humility. We have some tools going in but we don’t assume anything,” Dr. Jordan explained, “Instead, we ask what they need and how we can work together to use the tools, or even create new ones for them because not the same approach is going to work for every community.”

Partners in Mental Health and Christian Beliefs

One thing the three researchers have found in the preliminary data from their individual projects is that trust is essential, and familiarity helps. Having a strong Christian background and similar values and beliefs has been beneficial.

“People of faith and the Black Christians that I work with have a greater comfort level with Christian providers or people who have a connection to their faith,” said Dr. Jordan.

Making a Difference in Nontraditional Settings

Providing mental health education, resources and care in nontraditional settings, these three mental health professionals are not just exploring answers; they are making a difference. Their work involves partnering with church leaders and members to create sustainable educational and practical mental health resources for the community. They use a strengths-based approach to enhance or create mental health supports in churches such as peer groups, workshops, and evidence-based interventions that can be led by lay church members who partner with mental health providers for additional support within or outside of the church when needed.

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