Connecting at the Intersection of Faith, Community, and Mental Health: The Urgency of Now!

On September 7, Anna Bobb joined other leaders at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to discuss how community and faith-based organizations can play a more active role in closing the mental health access gap and promoting mental well-being.

The day also featured remarks by Dan Gillison, Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Kamara Jones, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Public Affairs at HHS, Kay Warren, Co-Founder of Saddleback Church, and many more. A highlight was a special report out from an invitational workshop held the day before on increasing access to mental health services in houses of worship.

At one end of our epidemic of untreated mental illness is a persistent nationwide shortage of trained mental health professionals. On the other is the reluctance of patients — especially patients from underserved communities — to seek help at all, a factor research suggests may be an even larger contributor to our gaping access gap.

In 2020, RAND prepared a report for the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) that called for strengthening the entry-level health workforce, including community health workers (CHWs), peer-support specialists, navigators, and behavioral-health coordinators. The report cited the critical need for a pipeline of these workers sustained by retention efforts, improved training, recruitment, workforce empowerment, and better pay.

One of those places is in local faith communities where bonds run deep and individuals share beliefs and culture. Trained mental health workers — drawn from their own communities — inspire trust, a skill that cannot be taught. Through the power of community, disenfranchised people can find their way through the confusing, broken mental health care system with the aid of a trusted guide.

In many communities, however, barriers to access persist, particularly in faith communities where mental illness is regarded as a moral failing or sign of insufficient devotion. Like many other institutions, churches have a mixed historical record, marred by trivializing, spiritualizing, and demonizing mental illness.

This day-long event focused on concrete steps forward to meet these challenges through the power of community and faith.