Is the Black Church Coming Around on Therapy?

There's still a long way to go.

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Feb 17 2017, 1:00pm

Image: John Moore / Getty

When I was a kid, people would try to plant that religion seed in my brain with hopes that I would sprout into this southern devout Christian, but it didn't exactly work. Growing up in a small, conservative, predominantly white, religiously homogenous town was already tough enough, but try being a "slightly" liberal African American man with basically no religious identity. I believe in god, but I am bigger on science. A damn science freak, if you will. Most pastors—especially in the South—do not want to hear my theories on creationism versus evolution.

My aversion to religion puts me in the minority when it comes to people of color, especially African Americans in the south. Ever since the days of southern tobacco plantations and being chained together with your fellow man singing Negro spirituals, black people heavily relied on prayer and religion to help them get through the toughest times. I find it curious that is often still the go-to.

"Biblically, there are cases where people have been healed by the word of God," Pastor Victor Kirk of the Sharon Bible Fellowship Church explains. "The church is a safe zone and therapy for a lot of people. Prayer works and the Bible works. Church plays a prominent role when it comes to healing."

Church as a support system is fine, but my issue is that even in 2017, some of us would rather "pray away" symptoms or "lean on the lord" when it comes to struggling with mental illness rather than actually seeing a therapist, let alone taking medication.

There's a very palpable negative stigma that comes with seeking therapy in my community—one that implies weakness. Mental health is often deemed a "white people" issue, suggesting privilege. And there's my personal favorite line: "If we can get through slavery we can get through anything."

Um no. To be resilient is one thing (and boy are we resilient) but African Americans tend to have higher rates of mental illness than white people. "Bucking up" is not enough.

"Where I grew up, everything was centered around school and church," says my friend Jocelyn—who also grew up in a rural, predominantly African American town in Alabama (where her father was a church deacon). "The perception was that mental health was not a medical issue and it was all in your head. When I thought I was depressed in middle school and high school, I just kept it to myself and kept going to church. I did not know what my options were. I didn't start going to counseling until I went to college and it was included in my tuition."

I thought about my own brief stint in college-tuition-paid counseling. I remember having nothing but positive experiences with it, sitting comfortably with a complete stranger and chatting about how the death of my grandmother in high school crushed me so much I considered not going to college at all. (My grandmother, one of those southern Christian "pray on it" types, was ripped from me after she leaned on the lord to help her get through too many health issues—a topic I have yet to talk about even with my own family today.) Despite my introverted nature, I spilled my guts in therapy. I had so much on my mind and in my heart that it just all came out at once.

Attending therapy immediately after losing my grandmother was something I often reflect on, but sure as hell not information I want to disclose to my parents. I'm not even worried about the possible judgment; my parents are understanding people. I just did not know if that was something financially we could afford outside of college. Many smaller southern cities—like Jocelyn's hometown of Aliceville, Alabama—have incomes that are significantly lower than the national average.

And that's another reason clusters of African American communities tend to use church as therapy. Asking god for help is free. And while the US does have mental health programs for some of the low-income individuals who can't afford it, even Medicaid could possibly be cut to shreds under the Trump administration. And finding a reputable mental health provider that accepts Medicaid in low income areas often times proves to be difficult.

"Churching away the pain" is also the result of fearing racial bias in the therapist's office. Not only is actually getting an appointment more difficult, according to recent findings, but as a black man, why go to a white mental health professional and discuss issues that they will possibly not relate to when you can go to church be around people that you are comfortable with, who know you and look like you?

Regardless of the endless research on the benefits of psychotherapy, black churchgoers are skeptical of the mental health care system, perhaps out of fear that it will undermine a more spiritual approach.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana native and African American psychotherapist Erlanger Turner has studied and written on the underutilization of therapy. He explains that churches struggle with the idea of supporting mental health professionals because of their long-developed cultural values and bible-based approach to coping.

"Cultural competency is big when it comes to churches and how they view mental health," Turner says. "There is a certain level of mistrust when it comes to how churches view therapy. These professionals may not understand the culture of the spiritual black community. There have been issues with overdiagnosing black patients. Families work with therapists and sometimes social services get involved due to issues of child abuse and neglect. The lack of trust, privacy and understanding can stop black communities from seeing mental health professionals."

Against the odds, the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, has been able to find some middle ground recently. The church itself has been a staple in the Harlem community since 1933, but Reverend Michael Walrond Jr. identified the lack of mental health services in the area and provided worshippers and local residents the space to receive mental health services. The H.O.P.E. Center ("Healing on Purpose and Evolving") provides five to ten free therapy sessions for individuals, couples and families before connecting them to local practitioners.

"As someone who has dealt with depression and mental illness, I have always prayed and relied on my spirituality, but seeking treatment has made all the difference," Walrond explains. "I noticed a lot of people in the community with mental health issues as well. So five years ago we began offering treatment with a professional out of the church ...There are two practitioners on staff that can be prescribe medication and we have wonderful interns from the Columbia University School of Psychiatry as well."

Connecting the dots between therapy and prayer could address the disparate levels of care that the community seeks and gets.  Licensed social worker and Yale divinity graduate student Heaven Berhane sees firsthand how pastors are attempting to update their sermons to include encouragement to reach out to a mental health professionals if need be.

"People like senior pastor Keith Battle of Mount Zion Church [in Washington, DC] are telling their congregations...You can go to therapy and still trust god. Trust has to be built between practitioners and the African American community," she explains, which could add to a deeper sense of peace and security.

"As a baby boomer, mental health was never recognized when I was growing up," Kirk says. "You now see this increase in divorce, child abuse and domestic violence. People are suffering significant trauma. While churches are highly effective, they are not equipped to deal with the severe mental health challenges that are happening today. The combination of church and real therapy can be a real benefit."

I can get behind that. I'm not hypercritical of the idea of religion. We need outlets to help cope with our day-to-day struggles just like everyone else, but prayer is not the same as treatment, in my eyes and experiences. We need the worlds of modern social science and today's black churchgoers to coexist to help deal with these mounting issues together. We shall overcome, indeed but not without a co-pay.