First Person: The faculty speak out

SPEA’S Brad Fulton: Congregations take on the challenge of helping people with mental illness

The opportunity to be healed—healed of a battered soul or a broken heart—has always been a cornerstone of religious belief. Our research shows congregations are increasingly a source of a different kind of healing – healing of the head.

We recently published the results of the first survey conducted with a nationally representative sample of U.S. congregations that specifically asked if they provide mental health programming. What the 1,300 congregations reported is somewhat surprising and suggests an opportunity for improved recovery outcomes for people with mental illness.

Nearly one in four congregations provide some type of program to support people with mental illness. That’s much higher than previous estimates. And approximately one third of all worshipers are in a congregation where they could receive mental health support. Here’s what those congregations often have in common:

  • Their members are young and more affluent. That’s possibly due to those groups attaching less stigma to mental illness.
  • They are larger than average. That often means they have the staff for social services and already provide health education.
  • They’re engaged with their surrounding communities. The more connected they are with their neighbors, the more likely they’ll be aware of mental health needs.

We also found that congregations located in predominately African-American neighborhoods are more likely to sponsor a mental health program. It’s possible that these congregations are responding to an unmet mental health need, given that African-Americans are among the least likely to go to a doctor and most likely to seek care from a congregation.

For example, the Healing Center Full Gospel Baptist Church is one of 10 black churches in the Memphis area that partners with state agencies and providers to host an “Emotional Fitness Center.” At these centers, faith leaders provide screenings for signs of mental illness, offer group sessions on topics such as depression and anger management, and, if needed, refer people to professional counselors.

While we now have a window into how congregations respond to mental health needs, it is far from a complete view. We currently lack more fine-grained data that would indicate whether the programming addresses clinical disorders such as depression or less defined conditions such as marital problems. Also, little is still known about the type of programming congregations offer, which could range from providing spiritual support through prayer to more education-based support or counseling.

We know from other research that nearly one in five Americans is affected by mental illness in any given year. We also know that more than 60 percent of Americans with a mental illness do not obtain professional treatment, and over half of the adults who go to congregations for help with a mental disorder do so at the exclusion of other providers.

Given that congregations are often the first and only point of contact for people seeking help, they can play an important role in providing support and making connections to professional treatment. More integrated and holistic care could result from greater coordination between mental health providers, congregations, and spiritual leaders. Together, they can offer a bridge to healing for those struggling with mental illness.

About the author: Brad Fulton is an assistant professor at SPEA. With Eunice Wong and Kathryn Derose of the RAND Corporation, Fulton published an article about the research, “Prevalence and Predictors of Mental Health Programming among US Religious Congregations,” in the peer-reviewed journal Psychiatric Services. Fulton earned his Ph.D. in sociology from Duke University.

About the survey: The findings about congregation-based mental health programming are drawn from the 2012 National Congregations Study, a nationally representative survey of 1,327congregations.