During National Minority Health Month, Valerie Brown does not need a stack of reports to tell her why many minorities use the church and faith to manage psychological distress.
Instead, Brown plucks a troubling chapter from her own life. About 25 years ago, her oldest grandchild was born with 23 holes in her heart. Instead of focusing on the grim diagnosis that the doctors offered at the time, Brown went to church and asked folks to pray with her. “That child is now 25 and graduated in 2013 from Hampton University,” said Brown, age 70. “Last year my granddaughter got her master’s at Oakland University in Michigan. Now she is an engineer for Chrysler in Michigan.”
The point is Brown can put her finger on multiple miracles that came out of thin air during that potentially distressing time in her life. First, the doctor unexpectedly referred the family to his college roommate who was conducting research on pediatric cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital. The next miracle was the family’s unexpected flight to Boston. They arrived at the hospital in Boston on Thursday during the Labor Day weekend. Pacing outside the operating room during two separate operations, the family finally learned the doctor had finished closing the 23 holes during the second surgery.
So, this means while Brown prayed in Boston from Thursday to Tuesday that Labor Day weekend, and her church family prayed in Portsmouth, the outcome shifted in the family’s favor.
“I believe it is because folks prayed for us, and prayed us through, so we would not lose faith” said Brown, who has worshipped all of her life at Zion Bethel United Church of Christ in Portsmouth. There, she has held many leadership positions, including assistant Sunday school superintendent, teen class leader, women’s ministry leader, and Christian Education leader. This past December she became the superintendent of Sunday school.
“My granddaughter is healthy now and not on any heart medication,” Brown said. ”When man gave up on her, God didn’t.” “I generally don’t get depressed,” said Brown, who retired in 2003 as principal at Westhaven Elementary in Portsmouth. She and her husband James L. Brown have been married for 44 years. They have three children. “I have always had to be a problem solver,” she explained. “There hasn’t been time for stress. “ In a sense, Brown puts a face on a growing pile of research including a 2009 Pew Research Center report. Blacks, nearly 80 percent, said religion was important compared to 50 percent of the general population in that report.
“Black families rely on spirituality as a source of support as they face various challenges,” the Pew Research Center explained. “These challenges include both systemic oppressions (overt racism) and familial stressors (parenting). Given these life stressors, perhaps spirituality and religion offer some explanation as to why African-Americans are better adjusted and more psychologically well than some experts expect.”
The growing pile of research on faith and psychological distress includes a 2013 University of Cincinnati study on 104 African-Americans and Latinos. While all of the participants had a history of long-term mental illness and substance abuse, all of the participants had not only sought mental health treatment. All said they were religious and coping better. “In other words, the more African-American and Latino individuals self-identified as religious, the fewer psychiatric symptoms were reported,” the study noted. The problem is Freud and other experts often equated religion with pathology. And until the past two decades, many clinical researchers agreed and largely ignored religion and faith as coping mechanisms.
Now a growing pile of research is showing that psychological distress decreases as people attend church. Whether the person attends weekly worship service, Bible study, or listens to sermons and gospel music. A 2010 study by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that patients who had been diagnosed with clinical depression but were religious were 75 percent more likely to get better with medical treatment for clinical depression. “It was tied specifically to the belief that a Supreme Being cared,” said lead author Patricia Murphy, a chaplain at Rush and an assistant professor of religion, health and human values. The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
In Hampton Roads, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Earle Williams II added his 1999 book to the growing pile of research. Williams said he wrote Psychology from Scripture: Bridging the Gap, in an effort to show that many psychological theories are compatible with and are often supported by the Bible. In a recent phone interview, Williams said, “The first chapter deals with the relationship between psychology and spiritual warfare. The second chapter deals with the relationship between the mind and the soul, goal setting and how to improve self-esteem. Chapter three deals with romantic relationships.”
“Not every thought that comes into your head is necessarily yours,” Williams explained. “Some are demonic, some are Godly thoughts, and some are your own. Often demonic thoughts are not consistent with what you are thinking but Godly thoughts are.” “For example, let’s say during an argument with your spouse everything that they ever did wrong comes flooding back,” Williams said aiming to distinguish a demonic thought from a Godly thought. “But a Godly thought would be that you see a hungry homeless person on the street. You consider not giving the person anything, then you reconsider and pull $5 out of your pocket.”
This means whether you flip through a growing number of studies that show how faith and hope erase psychological distress. Or you listen to real-life success stories including the one that Brown pulled from a chapter in her own life, the point is obvious. “Faith works,” Brown said. “It has helped. It has made me stronger.” “My granddaughter beat all the odds,” Brown said. “God had a plan for her. She is part of an international research project. She is normal. God has sustained her.” Williams, the clinical psychologist, said there is a reason why many people of color are more likely to go to a church and less likely to seek mental health treatment. “It’s easier to go to a church than a psychiatrist. The mental health system has not been kind to many people of color.”
“The mental health system was known as the place that took your children away,” Williams explained. “It has often tried to prove the inferiority of people of color to whites. This is what psychology has done but the church has always been there. At church you could feel connected, loved, and all the things you wouldn’t feel if you went to a professional who more than likely would be white.”
“Yes, I think belonging to a church keeps depression at bay because it gives you a sense of hope and that is what increases your level of happiness,” Williams added. “Connecting to others produces hope. We are designed to interact with each other. The more we are connected psychologically, spiritually, and physically the happier we are.”