Public Health

“Just Pray Harder”: Can Churches be a Resource in the Mental Health Crisis?

October 16, 2023  • Religion & Society Program & Charlotte McAdams


A mental health crisis in the United States has impacted millions of people across the United States. The pandemic and social justice movements have put mental health on our collective agenda. 

However, as we understand the steps needed to destigmatize mental illness and promote well-being, we may overlook how mental health affects diverse groups in different ways. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, African Americans are more likely to experience serious mental health challenges. But, they are less likely to seek or complete treatment. Many of the causes of this problem are systemic. 

Racism and prejudice can exacerbate mental illness. Meanwhile, there’s a lack of culturally competent mental health care professionals.  Training more qualified mental health providers is an essential response to the mental health crisis. 

However, the focus on individualized care from therapists may obscure the many alternative resources already in place. Churches currently provide support systems, counseling services, and social safety nets for many people. Groups affected most by persistent and debilitating mental health issues, such as African Americans and Latinos, are also those most involved in church communities. 

Faith leaders are often the first responders when individuals in these groups face mental health problems or challenging events. People may feel more comfortable talking with a faith leader than a mental health professional.

However, churches are not always a place of healing. While acknowledging the significant role that faith institutions can play in the mental health crisis, considering how faith communities have stigmatized it is important as well.

For example, mental illness is viewed by some as a personal or spiritual weakness. Studies have shown the prevalence of these beliefs, with findings that 63% of African Americans viewed depression as a sign of personal weakness. 

 Faith leaders can unwittingly spread harmful narratives about mental illness by delivering sermons on the need to pray harder in times of crisis, rely solely on God, or see struggles as a symptom of not being connected enough with a higher power. 

These theologies can inordinately harm subgroups within faith communities. Hurtful messages can take a toll on the psyche of marginalized groups like the LGBTQIA+ community. Another impacted group is black males, who may be affected by church cultures that have strict ideas about masculinity and stigmatize male expression of emotion. 

Many faith communities want to be better stewards of mental health but don’t know where to begin. Collaboration between faith leaders and mental health workers is crucial. Frequently, mental health workers believe engaging with faith leaders is just too complicated

However, some successful partnerships have begun to pop up. The Trauma-Responsive Congregations Project provides faith leaders cutting-edge research on moral injury and teaches them how to incorporate it into their sermons, scripture studies, and other congregational resources. 

Meanwhile, the American Psychiatric Association has created the Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership program, which facilitates conversations between clergy and psychiatrists to reduce stigma and promote understanding. 

In addition, individual faith leaders have stepped up to the task. Reverend Kyev Tatum of New Mount Rose Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, uses his platform to address gun violence in his community and its effect on mental health. 

The Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program will co-host “Stemming the Tide: Faith and Mental Health in Marginalized Communities” in May 2024. 

Religion can have a significant influence on people’s lives. The current mental health care system is inaccessible to many, given issues of stigmatization, a lack of culturally competent care, and financial barriers. 

However, churches have mechanisms to provide counseling and social influence. By harnessing faith communities’ potential to deliver trauma-informed care and destigmatizing mental health messages, we can confront our nation’s mental health crisis more adequately.