Monday, February 15, 2010

Faith & Mental Wellness in the African American Community

By Gina N. Duncan, M.D.

For many in the African American community, faith is an integral part of life.  In one study, approximately 85 percent of African American respondents described themselves as “fairly religious” or “religious” and considered prayer a common way of coping with stress.   

My training as a psychiatrist coupled with my background enables me to have a unique perspective on the field of psychiatry as it relates to the African American community.  I come from a Southern, deeply religious African American family of educators.  My grandfather, a gifted musician, suffered from depression for most of his adult life.  While it did not prevent him from having a successful career as a school principal, civic leader, and church member, it did prevent him from enjoying his blessings more fully.  This has had a ripple effect in my family, which continues to be felt even three generations out.  Fortunately, because of the struggles we observed in our grandfather, the younger members of my family have become much more vocal about our own stresses, and are determined to not let history repeat itself.
For many of us, emotional issues and mental illness are inextricably linked to issues of faith.  Some may view depression as a punishment for sin, psychotic illness as the presence of demons, or anxiety as a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide.  As a person of faith myself, I can say that faith provides a holistic view of life and of the meaning behind our individual experiences and struggles.  However, that does not mean that we cannot make use of all the resources available to us.  After all, if we have a headache we take Tylenol, right?  And if your doctor tells you to take medicine for your diabetes and high blood pressure, you listen.
Some emotional problems can be fully resolved with talk therapy and support.  However, more serious problems such as recurrent depression, thoughts of suicideschizophrenia, or bipolar disorder often require medication in addition to other forms of treatment.  This is an exciting time in the field of psychiatry and brain science, as we learn more and more about the biological basis of many mental illnesses.  And the good news is that there are many proven, effective treatments.
African Americans are a resilient people.  In honor of Black History Month, let’s make a commitment to living our best lives.  That means getting the help you need.  If you think you are suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, please know that it does not affect you alone.  It impacts your spouse, your children, and your community.  There are a lot of resources on to help you get started.
Let your light shine—don’t let it be diminished by a treatable condition!


  1. Thank you for sharing this. Far too often we as African Americans do tend to shy away from treating mental illness, thinking it to be a sign of weakness or test of faith. It is important to know that so many conditions are not a result of anything we have control of, but are conditions that we can take control of with treatment.

  2. As a woman of color and a devout Christian, who also happens to suffer from generalized anxiety, I am extremely grateful that I sought help for my anxiety. I was able to find an extremely qualified and caring therapist, who has helped me manage my condition. I am on the road to living fully God's will for life and I'm so happy that I had the courage to seek help. My faith has been strengthened by improving my mental and emotional health. I thank God that many churches are providing mental health resources and counseling for their members.

  3. I appreciate your article. The African-American community needs to know that it is okay to seek help and we just don't have to deal with it. So often we avoid such problems as mental health. I know first hand of the mental illness of a family member can effect the lives of many. My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was young, and it has been tough for me and my siblings over these last 20+ years. Churches need to address this issue and not cancel it as "a lack of faith".

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring remarks. While I am not a person of color, my life has been blessed by the rich character of the color others have brought to my life. Resilience, faith, hope, and reasoned action have not only mediated the effects of many forms of racism, but have also shown me essential ways to help others deal with cancer, troubled youth, HIV and AIDS, and almost every other challenge we might face in life. Your thoughts about mental health and the comments from others add to my acquired insights about the many colors of character. Thank you again.

  5. Tameica (broken-hearted)April 5, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    Thank you for this article. My brother committed suicide in 2005, and my life was changed forever. My brother started abusing alcohol at a young age, so I assumed his self-destructive behavior was a result of the booze. It wasn't until after his death that I realized he suffered from depression. When I think back, I realize the signs were there, and I just didn't see them, or either that I, like everone else, just assumed he needed help with his drinking. I know that my brother knew it was bigger than abusing alcohol because once he died and my family and I cleaned out his house, I found all types of literature about depression stuffed in his dresser drawers. I miss him so much and I wish I would've known then, what I know now.

  6. WUFT-TV, our local PBS station, is putting together dinner meetings with African American faith groups. May WUFT have permission to use your blog essay to share with our audience?
    Pam Shamel, Education & Outreach Director
    Gainesville, FL

  7. ental Health America remains one of the outstanding non-profit organizations in the country that works through its affiliates to “reduce the stigma” and increase objective information about mental health concerns.

  8. Dr. Duncan, this was an awesome article. It is my desire to raise the education level in our communities about African American mental illness. This article just fueled the fire! Thank you so much for sharing. Sharing is caring. God Bless You.

    Annette Brown

  9. Thank you for your response Annette. I'm glad you found my piece helpful, and that you are working to raise the community's awareness of mental health issues. Education is critical to promote healing and end stigma.
    Dr. Duncan

  10. The lack of education and dialogue within African American communities on this subject, has really led to some or if not all of the stigma associated with mental disorders among Blacks. I think as a people we owe it to our love ones who may be suffering internally, to open our minds to better possibilities. There are a myriad of ways to combat and manage mental disorders-sometimes prayer alone wont be the in all be all. This is why education on the matter is so important.


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