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What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Churches as Partners in Ending Mental Health Disparities

African American woman praying

By Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, MHSc. (Georgetown University Medical Center)

In the past few years, we have seen tremendous growth in the “mainstreaming of faith” in our daily lives. Oprah Winfrey hosts a show called “Super Soul Sundays” on her OWN network, Tyler Perry movies regularly contain spiritual messages and even blockbuster family movies rely on spiritual themes (“Man of Steel” anyone?).  It appears that spirituality and faith speak to a large segment of U.S. society and include a multitude of spiritual traditions and practices.

“What exactly does any of this have to do with mental health” you ask.

Well, it sets the stage for a new and innovative approach to reach traditionally hard-to-reach communities where mental health stigma may be disproportionately high.

This approach is called Faith Based Mental Health Promotion – a term I developed based upon the innovative work of psychological scientists and other professional researchers to reduce health disparities.

Faith Based Mental Health Promotion has been described as community based participatory research conducted with faith communities (typically churches) as full partners helping to identify, design, implement and study problems that congregations and communities find important.

This approach to research builds upon the efforts of individuals interested in public health improvement and has the potential to reach large segments of underrepresented communities specifically (e.g., rural families or people of color).

The origins of Faith Based Mental Health Promotion rest with the pioneers of the field of Faith Based Health Promotion. They partnered with communities to develop best practices for addressing physical health problems such as increasing healthy eating, increasing preventative cancer screenings and reducing hypertension.   Their findings indicate that Faith Based Health Promotion is quite useful for increasing health awareness and supporting small changes in health behavior.

Faith Based Mental Health Promotion builds on this foundation and applies the principles to a highly stigmatized area, mental health in traditionally underserved communities.

Through The AAKOMA (African American Knowledge Optimized for Mindfully Healthy Adolescents) Project; I collaborate with a wonderful team of community and faith based colleagues (in North Carolina and the DC area) to reduce the burden of depressive illness in African Americans teens (and their families).

With my faith based community partners, we achieve this goal by identifying mechanisms for increasing treatment readiness and reducing the stigma associated with depression and suicide.  Our work began about 15 years ago with a “grass roots” initiative and continues today with community, institutional, federal and foundation support.  To date, the AAKOMA team has identified some of the factors that teens and adults believe contribute to high stigma and low clinical care use for depression among African American teens and we have developed an intervention to improve the use of depression care by African American teens and families.

So how can researchers, clinicians and families engage in Faith Based Mental Health Promotion?

1.     Recognize it as a new and exciting mechanism for reaching diverse communities.

Researchers currently have models for how this work can be done with African American populations (see my work with The AAKOMA Project, as well as research by Dr. Sherry Davis Molock at the George Washington University and Dr. Gina Duncan at the Georgia Medical College).

2.     Explore opportunities to partner with local faith communities on mutually shared interests.

Say you are a community leader interested in increasing the diversity of youth in gifted programs in the local schools.  Consider partnering with a local university researcher with interests in this area to host meetings with your youth ministry and to educate kids and their parents.

3.     Expand your outreach.

Clinicians and community leaders/advocates can consider partnering with local faith communities to expand their practice to include typically underserved patients.  For example, in 2012, The Wall – Las Memorias Project in Los Angeles, CA hosted their 6th annual conference on reducing disparities in HIV/AIDS, depression and substance abuse.

Overall, Faith Based Mental Health Promotion is an exciting and innovative approach to reach populations who may not otherwise access psychological science and practice.

If you have conducted this type of work or are interested in learning more, please leave a comment for us, we’d love to hear from you!

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