Most churches could do a lot more to support people who live with mental illnesses. Many Christian teachings link health, wealth and faith in ways that can make anyone having a bad day feel like God has abandoned them. This feels all the more injurious to someone living with a mental-health challenge.
This becomes particularly acute in African-American communities. For emotional support, African Americans tend to rely on family and social and religious communities rather than healthcare professionals. In addition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that African Americans are less likely than their white counterparts to receive accurate diagnoses.
July is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. During this season, mental-health advocates shine a spotlight on the way that depression and other mental illnesses are experienced among people of color in the United States. Mental-health professionals are increasingly competent in various cultural experiences and should be consulted.
As black churches explore ways that they can be supportive of people living with mental illnesses, they can draw upon various resources within tradition resources that can be helpful to people living with depression. These historic practices can create a contemporary climate that is welcoming and supportive for faithful people living with depression.
Spirituals: Originating among the enslaved Africans in the United States, spirituals express collective feelings of hope, spirituality and sadness. Some spirituals were coded messages about desires and plans for freedom. Many other spirituals expressed the sorrows of slaves. Songs such as "Been in the Storm So Long," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," and "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" do not leave individuals alone in their despair but allow melancholy to be experienced in community. Seen as both religious music and an antecedent to the blues, spirituals are powerful ways of acknowledging that sadness is a part of the spiritual journey, and that one needn't face it alone.
Charismatic Worship: Many historic black churches have a history of charismatic worship. This worship style is often seen in praise and worship, preaching and giving. Many scholars have connected charismatic worship and its use of drum rhythms and music to the embodied worship of the African traditional religions of enslaved Africans. Within historic black churches, charismatic worship has been both embraced and rejected for this association with Africa and non-Christian religious practices. Experiencing faith in bodily expression reminds individuals and communities of the organic connection between mind and body. Understanding this link is a key component to the experience and treatment of mental-health challenges.
Getting Happy: Many black churches use this term to describe a physical expression of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can move an individual or community to share gifts, do acts of justice or praise God in quiet or public ways. Often associated with charismatic or Pentecostal worship styles, "getting happy" is a way that many Christian worshipers are able to express both gratitude and anguish. "Getting happy" can be a counterbalance to the more desperate dimensions of the spiritual journey. Some scholars of black religion also suggest that "getting happy" gives a safe place for black worshipers to express their deepest feelings. Regular expressions of joy can be cathartic for people living with depressive conditions.
Liberation Emphasis: Many black churches emerge from historical pursuits of justice. Some churches rebelled against the racist practices or theologies in predominantly white churches. Many churches also were active in the civil-rights movement, as their faith fueled their convictions for a quest for equality. Liberation theology understands Jesus as one who included and cared for those who were disregarded by wider society. Black churches can draw upon the tradition of fighting oppression when it comes to mental-health challenges. They can resist stigmas, promote mental-health parity, encourage cultural competence and model humane treatment and love for people who live with mental-health challenges.
Though the church can be a great resource for many individuals, mental-health challenges should be addressed by a licensed mental-health professional.