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The Black Church Cannot ‘Pray Away’ Mental Illness

Last week, actress Taraji P. Henson launched her own foundation for mental health awareness. This comes after singer Michelle Williams shared a courageous statement about her battle with mental illness and how she is seeking treatment. In an age where black women are lauded for being strong, carefree and magical, Henson and Williams show there is strength in vulnerability and seeking help for our mental health.

This is especially significant as both women are open about their faith in Christianity. While conversations about mental health and wellness are becoming more visible within the faith community, there are still strong beliefs in the black church that mental health illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are the results of the lack of faith or can be “prayed away.”

As we begin to have more open conversations about mental health in the black community, this is an opportunity for the black church to begin the necessary work of reconciling belief in an all-powerful God and the severity of mental illness so that more people may feel empowered enough to step out on faith and seek necessary help.

African-Americans, historically, have held deep beliefs in Christianity that have survived through generations. When our ancestors suffering through slavery had nothing else, not even their freedom, they at least had their faith. The intersections between faith and freedom can be found in the Negro spirituals and the stories of deliverance that are passed down through generations.

Prayer and Biblical lessons existed long before equality and health care in this country and some black Christians have become dependent solely on faith.

The church also played an integral role in the liberation of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South and the civil rights era. Black ministers formed organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Southern churches led and participated in nonviolent movements. Today, the black church remains a central part of black American life; it’s a place of community and congregation for black people to gather, to lead and to express their faith.

For generations, black people have leaned on scripture and faith-based practices and rituals to give them hope and peace of mind. African-Americans have studied and become well-acquainted with Bible verses that command us not to worry, to cast all of our cares upon the Lord and look to God for our help. These prayers and Biblical lessons existed long before the access to equality and health care in this country and some black Christians have become so dependent on faith and prayer that the idea of departing from faith to seek outside medical help seems nearly impossible.

For some Christians, anything that hurts, from the heart to a broken leg can be “prayed away.” So it is difficult to persuade someone’s grandma, for instance, who understands and has lived through decades of oppression and degradation and whose spirituality has been passed down through generations, that the same God and faith who had a hand in “delivering” our people from white supremacy cannot do the work of healing our mental ailments.

But this belief that mental illness can be prayed away is detrimental, and it hurts many Christians who do, in fact, experience mental illness, particularly those who are unable to reconcile their beliefs in a God who has the capacity to heal all things with the reality of serious mental health diagnoses.

If the black church seeks to remain a sanctuary of liberation, we have to be willing to recognize how our communities are being underserved when it comes to mental health.

Black people, even those of faith, are suffering from mental illness. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. There are many societal factors that make black people more susceptible to mental illnesses. The black community has long suffered through oppression, poverty and state-sanctioned violence in this country, and many of us are sick as a result. Many black families are plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, which has its roots in slavery and has continued to flourish under our current state of racism.

According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health, adult African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. African-Americans living below the poverty line are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. African-Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than are adult whites, and while African-Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, African-Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).

Despite the presence of mental illness in our community, black people are not getting the treatment they need. Health care in this country is expensive, and for poor black people, it is especially costly. African-Americans are more susceptible to poverty due to systemic racial oppression and other forms of discrimination. Therefore, many black people simply don’t have the luxury of paying someone to talk to about their problems when there are other bills to pay that are necessary for survival.

Only about one-quarter of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of whites. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 15.9 percent of African-Americans are uninsured, as compared to 11.1 percent of white Americans, and are unable to be able to afford health care for there mental health needs.

Black people also tend to be distrustful of the health care system in this country and carry stigmas around mental health and wellness that prevent them from seeking help. Many of us grow up hearing about the Tuskegee experiments where scientists carried out unlawful and deadly experiments on black men, or the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells for science without her permission. We look at the history of what America has done to black bodies, and we continue to read stories about black pain not being taken seriously (especially the pain of black women) and we are rightfully leery of America’s medical systems.

African-Americans experience racism and microaggressions from mental health providers, particularly those that lack invaluable cultural competency. Because African-American experiences are not always included in research, particularly in psychological research, mental health care providers may misdiagnose or overlook African-Americans, who do not share their backgrounds.

There is also so much shame and stigma surrounding therapy that keep black people away. For many black men, seeking psychological help is seen as a weakness. For others, they don’t want to seem “crazy” or out of control. Some black people simply believe therapy to be “rich white people” stuff. And for those African-Americans who do want to find a therapist, it’s very difficult to find one who is black or well-versed in issues specific to the black community.

The black church must adopt a mentality where it is okay for our beliefs to evolve. A God who cares for all of creation and human beings must also be concerned with mental health and wellness.

With all of these hoops to jump through to get medical help, it stands to reason that some African-Americans will avoid seeking mental health care altogether and instead flock to a place where mental soothing is both free and familiar: the church. When all else fails, the church and God will be there, as it has been for black people for generations.

But if the black church seeks to remain a sanctuary of liberation, we have to be willing to recognize how our communities are being underserved and see how our aversion to therapy fuels negative stereotypes about mental health. Then, we must do something about it.

Fortunately, this work is happening. There are indeed churches and other parts of the black community that are embracing mental health and therapy. And they are discussing the myths and intersections of faith and mental health. There are ordained ministers who are also clinicians. Churches are also beginning to embrace wellness practices, such as yoga and mindfulness, and are aware of the ways in which the lack of access to health insurance is a social injustice. And the database, Therapy For Black Girls, exists to help connect young women with mental health professionals who can cater to their unique needs. But this is just the beginning.

The black church must adopt a mentality where it is okay for our beliefs to evolve. A God who cares for all of creation and human beings must also be concerned with mental health and wellness. It is my own personal belief system that doctors, therapists, and medicine are all a part of God’s creation. Thus, Christians can both pray and seek therapy and take medication if that is what they need to be whole beings. Ultimately, the role of the church is to be a place of healing, refuge and community, a place where people gather, are fed spiritually and then are compelled to act against injustices and the lack of love in the world.

If black women and men continue to speak out about their own mental health journeys, we can begin to lift the stigma around acknowledging mental illness. And if Christians can do away with the ideas that mental health illnesses are the manifestations of the lack of faith or prayer, other black Christians may actually be free to seek help that’s becoming more available to them and live lives that are more healthy and whole.

Blessed are those whose belief in God and their trust in a therapist can coexist. This ultimately is healthy spirituality.

Jamilah Pitts is a writer and teacher in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. She is an alumna of Spelman College and is pursuing further graduate study at Teachers College of Columbia University.

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