Church-Based Services Help Close Mental Health Care Gaps

Black individuals who received mental health services through a church-based program reported high levels of satisfaction, data from a small, qualitative study show.

“This model of providing mental health services adjacent to or supported by a trusted institution, with providers who may have a more nuanced and intimate knowledge of the experiences of and perceptions held by community members, may facilitate important therapy-mediating factors, such as trust,” wrote Angela Coombs, MD, of Columbia University, New York, and colleagues.

Black Americans continue to face barriers to mental health services, and fewer than one-third of Black Americans with a mental health condition receive formal mental health care, Coombs and colleagues reported. Barriers to treatment include stigma and distrust of medical institutions, and strategies are needed to address these barriers to improve access. Consequently, “one approach includes the development of mental health programming and supports with trusted institutions, such as churches,” they said. Data are limited, however, on the perspectives of individuals who have used church-based services.

In the study, published in Psychiatric Services, Coombs and colleagues recruited 15 adults aged 27-69 years who were receiving or had received mental health services at the HOPE (Healing On Purpose and Evolving) Center, a freestanding mental health clinic affiliated with the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. At the time of the study in 2019, those attending the center (referred to as “innovators” rather than patients or clients to reduce stigma) received 10 free sessions of evidence-based psychotherapy.

Treatment included cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), religiously integrated CBT, and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) to individuals, couples, and families. Group psychotherapy also was an option. Clinicians at the HOPE Center included licensed social workers with doctoral and master’s-level degrees, as well as supervised social work student interns.

Study participants took part in a 30-minute interview, in person or by phone, with a female psychiatrist who was not employed by the HOPE Center or involved in treating the patients. There were 15 participants: 13 women and 2 men, with mean ages of 48 and 51 years, respectively; 14 identified as Black, non-Hispanic. Most (13 individuals) identified as heterosexual, 11 had never married, and 14 had some college or technical school education.

Notably, 11 participants reported attending church once a week, and 13 said they considered religion or spirituality highly important. Participants “reported that services that could integrate their spiritual beliefs with their current mental health challenges enhanced the therapeutic experience,” the researchers said.

Positive messaging about mental health care from the church and senior pastor also encouraged the participants to take advantage of the HOPE Center services.

As one participant said, “I’ve always believed that I can handle my own issues … but listening to the pastor always talking about the [HOPE] Center and not to be ashamed if you have weaknesses, that’s when I said, ‘You know what, let me just start seeking mental health services because I really need [them].’ ”

Overall, study participants said that they learned skills during their therapy that they could apply in daily life, including recognizing cycles of unproductive behavior, processing traumatic experiences and learning self-love, and embracing meditation at home.

“A common theme among participants was that the HOPE Center provided them with tools to destress, process trauma, and manage anxiety,” the researchers wrote. In particular, several participants cited group sessions on teaching and practicing mindfulness as their favorite services. They described the HOPE Center as a positive, peaceful, and welcoming environment where they felt safe.

Cost issues were important as well. Participants noted that the HOPE Center’s ability to provide services that were free made it easier for them to attend. “Although participants said that it was helpful that the HOPE Center provided referrals to external providers and agencies for additional services, some said they wished that the HOPE Center would provide long-term therapy,” the researchers noted.

Overall, “most participants said that establishing more mental health resources within faith-based spaces could accelerate normalization of seeking and receiving mental health care within religious Black communities,” they said.

The study findings were limited by the absence of clinical data – and data on participants’ frequency and location of church attendance, the researchers noted. In addition, the positive results could be tied to selection bias, Coombs and colleagues said. Another possible limitation is the overrepresentation of cisgender women among the participants. Still, “the perspectives shared by participants suggest that this model of care may address several important barriers to care faced by some Black American populations,” the researchers wrote.

Bridging Gap Between Spirituality and Mental Health

Dr Atasha Jordan

In an interview, Atasha Jordan, MD, said Black Americans with mental illnesses have long lacked equal access to mental health services. “However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, published studies have shown that rates of mental illness increased concurrently with a rise in spirituality and faith. That said, we currently live in a time where mental health and spirituality are more likely to intersect,” noted Jordan, of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

She said it is not surprising that the study participants felt more comfortable receiving mental health services at a clinic that was church affiliated.

“We have known for years that people of faith are more likely to seek comfort for psychological distress from clergy, rather than mental health professionals. Providing a more familiar entry point to mental health services through a church-affiliated mental health clinic helps to bridge the existing gap between spirituality and mental health,” Jordan said. “For many Black Americans, spirituality is a central component of culturally-informed mental health care.

“Mental health providers may find improved service utilization and outcomes for their patients by collaborating with faith-based organizations or investing time to learn spiritually-based psychotherapies.”

Recently published data, notably a study published May 1, 2021, in Psychiatric Services, continue to support the existing knowledge “that many patients with psychiatric illnesses want increased attention paid to spirituality during their mental health care,” Jordan noted. “Moreover, they showed that nonreligious clinicians may be more apt than religious clinicians to provide objective, spiritually-oriented mental health care. In this vein, further research aimed at understanding the most effective methods to address spiritual health in times of mental distress can help all mental health providers better meet their patients’ psychiatric and psychological needs.”

Overcoming Stigma, Mistrust

Dr Lorenzo Norris

During the pandemic, clinicians have seen an increase in mental health distress in the form of anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms, Lorenzo Norris, MD, of George Washington University, Washington, said in an interview.

“Historically, African Americans have faced numerous barriers to mental health care, including stigma and mistrust of medical institutions,” Norris said. “At this time, perhaps more than in recent decades, novel ways of eliminating and navigating these barriers must be explored in an evidence-based fashion that will inform future interventions.”

Norris also found that the study findings make sense.

“Historically, the Black church has been a central institution in the community,” he said. “In my personal experience, the church served in a variety of roles, including but not limited to advocacy, employment, social services, peer support, and notably a trusted source of advice pertaining to health. In addition, Black churches may be in an ideal position to serve as culturally sensitive facilitators to build trust,” he said.

The study’s message for clinicians, according to Norris, is to “carefully consider partnering with faith-based organizations and community leaders if you want to supplement your efforts at decreasing mental health care disparities in the African American community.”

He pointed out, however, that in addition to the small number of participants, the study did not examine clinical outcomes. “So we must be careful how much we take from the initial conclusions,” Norris said.

Additional research is needed on a much larger scale to add support to the study findings, he said. “This study focused on one church and its particular program,” Norris noted. “There is likely a great deal of heterogeneity with Black churches and definitely among church members they serve,” he said. “Although it may be tempting to go with an ‘of course it will work’ approach, it is best to have additional qualitative and quantitative research of a much larger scale, with clinical controls that examine the ability of Black churches to address barriers African Americans face in receiving and utilizing mental health services,” he concluded.

Jordan disclosed receiving a 2021-2022 American Psychiatric Association/Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Minority Fellowship Program grant to study mental health literacy in the Black church. Norris disclosed serving as CEO of the Cleveland Clergy Alliance, a nonprofit organization providing outreach assistance as a mechanism to help seniors and the disabled population through community programming. The study authors reported no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.