More Black people are talking about mental health. It’s now more common to see information about mental health shared and discussed over the internet and other Black spaces. That conversation is still struggling to make its way through the Black Church. Often, Black Christians respond to depression, suicide, and all things mental health with unhelpful responses. Believers often urge those who disclose their struggles to “pray it away,” or “praise God through it.” At times they’ll go a step further, saying that there must be some sin or evil spirit in their life that’s causing their mental oppression.
While those responses aren’t helpful, the backlash against Christians rarely helps the situation. Christian communities’ handling of mental health issues is viewed as the result of ignorance, cruelty, and even stupidity. It’s true that these common approaches cause more harm than good. However, there are important societal factors that laid the groundwork for Black people of faith to respond to mental health in this way. Calling people stupid won’t address them. It’s not as simple as believers being stupid, uncultured, or unlearned. To make progress, these reasons must be acknowledged and then worked through in the context of community.
Oppression and unfair treatment are the norm for Black folks in this country. This includes healthcare. There’s a historic mistrust of medical institutions, and there’s plenty of good reasons for that. Tragedies such as the Tuskegee Incident or the forced sterilization of women are in recent history. The care that Black people receive from medical practitioners is twice as likely to be subpar compared to a white person. It would be foolhardy to forget that medical institutions maintained the inferiority of Black people as a scientific fact for a long time. As the study above demonstrates, many doctors still believe that black people are either addicts, age slower, or have greater pain resistance. This legacy of abuse fosters mistrust of medical institutions and solutions, including those that impact mental health.
As terrible as this is, you can only be mistreated by medical institutions if you can get to one. Many Black people don’t have access to quality healthcare. This is due to not having adequate insurance, lack of facilities a reasonable distance from them, poorly funded facilities, and many other reasons that would pose a challenge to accessing care. It’s not uncommon for these same people to have to choose between initiating care for themselves or keeping the lights on.
It is important to note that these situations define the context that Black people, including Black Christians, live in. These are systemic issues. So, what do you do when the deck is stacked against you, but you must make it to tomorrow? If you’re a Christian, you find hope in a higher power to somehow shine their light through the clouds of your depression and to keep you in your right mind when life goes left. Nanna didn’t have time or money to stop by counseling to talk about her emotions. She had to work and feed the kids. The 23rd Psalm was her only sense of peace. Papa wasn’t taught to discuss his emotions and the doctors don’t think he has any. To cope, he drinks, sits in his big chair all night in front of the TV, and prays that God will lift the depression – if he even knows to call it that – from his life. In these and many other scenarios, mental health becomes something that White people and folks with means can afford to worry about. Oppressed folks are often robbed of the time and resources necessary to take adequate care of themselves. And when you have no other recourse, prayer is faster, cheaper, doesn’t require time off work or a long bus ride, and is accessible without insurance.
It’s vital to address the issues that create these circumstances and the incorrect viewpoints that arise in response, rather than demean people whose devotion may be the last resource they have. Prayer and worship with community can be a powerful and sustaining feature in someone’s life. It’s important to keep what’s good about Black Christian faith – community, hope, and resources – while educating people on how to take care of their mental health. Shaming a depressed person for praying won’t help. Neither will supporting non-medical ideas about mental illness. There is a sweet spot, where spiritual practices and professional care can help people flourish. With renewed minds, the whole conversation and approach can be transformed.
Verdell A. Wright has graduate theological degrees from Howard University and Wesley Theological Seminary. He is a preacher, speaker, and teacher who loves to highlight alternative routes for spiritual practice. Look for him on the web at Verdell.org.
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