Faith, mental illness, and the African American community

MSR Health


By Dr. Thomas Adams

CEO, African American 

Family Services


Faith and mental illness have been debated since B.C. (before Christ). As African Americans, we are a people who embody a tremendous amount of faith. A 2009 report found African Americans to be the most religious group of people in the U.S.

For the majority of African Americans, the object of our faith is rooted in our belief in God. As African Americans, there are three dynamics that are prevalent for us when we enter into a conversation about mental illness: faith, mental illness, and ethnic identity.

Most believers in God believe that God can cure us of diseases, disabilities, and other afflictions through prayer. Our faith is put to the test when we become sick, ill, disabled, etc. We wonder if we are not being “good believers” by seeking outside help to help us with our afflictions.

The subject of mental illness can polarize people. Most of us find that we believe or don’t believe in it. Unlike other medical illness that can be seen with the eye (cut/lacerations, broken bone, chicken pox, etc.), mental illness tends to elicit doubt about its legitimacy for some.

What is mental illness? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative medical manual on mental disorders, says that although there is no adequate definition for the concept of mental disorders, it defines mental illness as:

A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (i.e., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., an impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. The syndrome or pattern must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event. It must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual.

It is widely accepted that most individuals who are labeled as having a mental illness are stigmatized: They are thought of as “less than.” For many, this can make conversation addressing mental illness taboo.

Adding to the complexity of addressing mental illness is the added dynamic of being African American. In a country that is often not accepting or tolerant of African Americans, many of us too often feel stigmatized as “less than.”

With this stigma that many of us carry, we won’t willingly or very easily add the additional stigma that often accompanies being diagnosed as mentally ill. Therefore, we often don’t acknowledge having a mental illness. We wrestle internally with the 2,000-year debate between faith and mental illness, and we then further complicate this internal debate by inserting our identity and culture in the dialogue.

Is there a quick and easy answer to this debate? It depends on who you ask. What I know is that millions of African Americans fear even asking the question because of the double stigma that may be attached to them.

African American Family Services helps individuals every day wrestle with these questions, and others as we embody our mission “to help the African American individual, family, and community reach a greater state of well-being through the delivery of community-based, culturally specific chemical health, mental health, and family perseveration services. Please call and/or come by and see us.


Appointments can be made at African American Family Services by calling 612-871-7878 or by visiting their Minneapolis location at 2616 Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.