Oct 30 2012
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An APHA Presentation: Addressing Racial Health Disparities with Culturally Competent Interventions Delivered from the African American Church

By Daniel L. Howard, PhD, executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College. The Center’s mission is to provide leadership in health policy education, research and reform, while improving the health and health care of underserved communities. This post is part of a series in which RWJF scholars, fellows and alumni who are attending the American Public Health Association annual meeting reflect on the experience.

This week, I am part of a team that had the honor of being chosen to conduct a presentation on mental health in African American faith-based communities at the 140th Annual Meeting and Exposition for the American Public Health Association (APHA).  This is a significant topic for clinicians, researchers and policy-makers to consider when addressing mental health needs for African American individuals and their communities.

The Surgeon General’s Report Supplement (2001) noted that science can offer effective treatments for most disorders.  However, it noted, “Americans do not share equally in the best that science has to offer.” Numerous others researchers have concluded that publicly provided behavioral health services must be improved for ethnic minorities.

Research has consistently shown that, despite significant prevalence of mental health issues in the United States, most individuals do not seek treatment for these issues. Historically, research has shown that African Americans are even less likely to seek mental health treatment than their Caucasian counterparts. There are several reasons for this that are not exclusive to, but do include, the stigma that surrounds mental health in African American communities, the perceptions of mental health in African American communities, and the limited mental health resources available to address mental health needs in the community.

Despite the indication that the majority of mental health service needs for African Americans are unmet, there has been a strong and consistent response from the African American church to serve as the surrogate for the medical sector. Many published studies have found that African American churches have strong potential to serve as a highly effective gateway for the successful delivery of health intervention. The compatibility between health and wellness and African American churches, and particularly between mental health wellness and African American churches, can be attributed to several factors including the church’s consistent tradition of supporting its members and the inherent emphasis on the healing of psychological ills.

Given the strongly supported notion of African American churches serving as an effective health intervention delivery source, the study we will present at the APHA meeting is a community based participatory research study that examined mental health stigma, perceptions of mental health, and the types of mental health resources available in three different southern communities (both rural and urban). In this study, researchers completed 39 qualitative interviews to explore these domains. All the pastors and their congregations received this study very well, which was very important and encouraging. Mental health is an underdeveloped area of clinical practice and research that stands to undergo significant growth in terms of resources as well as education for church officials and their community members.

This study is only a small first step in developing a potentially important area that holds great possibility for addressing and resolving racial health disparities with culturally competent interventions that can be delivered from the African American church, a portal that has historically been trusted as a source of comfort and knowledge.

The acceptance of this oral presentation at the 140th APHA meeting also conveys a promising message that this is an important topic for other health researchers and policy-makers. This is a great step in the right direction.

Tags: APHA 2012, Behavioral/mental health, Black (incl. African American), Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, Diversity, Human Capital, Public health, Social determinants of health, Voices from the Field