February 05, 2016

By Monique Tarver

A connection to faith has long been recognized as having a deeply profound impact on emotional well-being. Throughout history, a connection to a higher power has been the cornerstone of the resilience and empowerment that has sustained generations of individuals from the African diaspora. Trauma and health disparities faced both historically and currently by African Americans contribute to the enduring legacy of faith/spirituality. To this day, it remains a powerful source of hope for the community.

Many studies reveal that when faith is included in wellness planning, individuals experience shorter recovery times, fewer hospitalizations and fewer relapses. A 2009 survey of individuals with mental health conditions and family members conducted by the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative revealed that 88% of African Americans agreed or strongly agreed that faith is an essential component to their or their family member’s wellness.

The church and its leadership is a first choice for many individuals in times of personal distress. During a given year, clergy see more people than psychologists and psychiatrists combined.  As first responders, African American faith leaders play a compelling role in speaking with the community messaging. It is imperative that community leaders are well equipped to respond appropriately to mental health needs while helping remove barriers to care.

Stigma is a significant barrier to accessing the needed support and care for individuals facing mental health concerns. Having a conversation with trusted community leaders who are aware of cultural concerns can improve mental wellness for individuals and families.

The assurance that mental health awareness is uplifted in the community often begins with faith leaders. For this reason, partnering with the African American faith community can be very helpful. Not only to foster collaborative relationships for on-going support, but also for preventative care and the reduction of the pronounced health disparities found in the African American community. Encouraging the mental health and faith communities to mutually learn from and respect one another is a progressive and necessary step in the right direction.

The following are a few helpful tips to for faith leaders serving the African American community:

  1. Realize that mental health conditions are medical conditions that are very common. It is very likely that several families in your congregation are impacted by mental health in some way or another, which makes mental health a significant concern for the entire church.
  2. Mental health conditions are like all other medical conditions and should be treated as such. The individuals and families seeking your guidance deserve to have their needs addressed appropriately and from an accurately informed source. To learn more about mental health, faith leaders are encouraged to take the Mental Health 101 for African American Faith Leaders as part of the Mental Health Friendly Communities Training series.
  3. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to offer their gifts, talents and strengths to the community. Individuals living with mental health concerns are valuable community members. Remind them of they are part of an incredible community and greatness lies in them!
  4. Faith communities should not replace trained mental health services providers, but work to support them. Faith leaders should seek opportunities to collaborate and work together to help members of the community and their families.

While we are taking time to acknowledge and celebrate the incredible contributions of this community during African American Heritage Month, we must not forget that some individuals who are living with serious mental health concerns need our support. Our goal, if not responsibility, is to ensure that all individuals and families have a sense of community that will encourage them and give them the hope they deserve.

 Minister Monique Tarver, L.E., is the Program Manager of the Mental Health Ministries division of Good Times Ahead Family Ministries. As a survivor of mental health distress and family member, Minister Tarver uses her experiences in the mental health system and faith/spiritual community to advocate for the collaboration of these communities to allow for a holistic approach to wellness and recovery.


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