Rural African Americans are disproportionately exposed to numerous stressors, such as poverty, racism, and discrimination, that place them at risk for experiencing elevated levels of depressive symptoms. Elevated levels of depressive symptoms can lead to a host of negative outcomes, including poor management of chronic illnesses (e.g., hypertension, diabetes), poor social and occupational functioning, and development of clinical depression. Although effective treatments for decreasing depressive symptoms exist, structural barriers (e.g., lack of available services, transportation) and perceptual barriers (e.g., stigma, fear of misdiagnosis) impede the use of traditional mental health services within these communities, resulting in a significant unmet psychiatric need. Failure to develop culturally appropriate strategies to provide adequate, timely care to rural African Americans can result in a significant public health crisis.
African American churches have been identified as potential venues for providing depression education and treatment for rural African Americans. Within the African American rural community, churches represent a key portal through which as much as 85% of the community can be reached. Churches have been used to address physical health outcomes in those communities, but few have focused primarily on addressing mental health outcomes. Through the NIMHD-funded project entitled “Faith Academic Initiatives to Transform Health (FAITH) in the Delta,” our partnership, consisting of faith community leaders and University of Arkansas for Medical Science researchers, conducted formative work in the Arkansas Delta. Data suggested that community members consider elevated depressive symptoms to be a significant unmet need. Furthermore, community members suggested that attempts to improve depressive symptoms should do the following:
- Provide education about depressive symptoms. Recognizing when depressive symptoms become a clinical problem is the first step toward receiving adequate treatment. However, rural African Americans report difficulties in differentiating between normal sadness and clinically significant depressive symptoms. Providing education about depressive symptoms allows rural African Americans to make informed treatment decisions.
- Address the role that stress from social inequities plays in the development and maintenance of depressive symptoms. Rural African Americans correctly realize that prolonged exposure to stress caused by social inequities is a significant factor in the development and maintenance of depressive symptoms. Treatments that conceptualize depressive symptoms as normal reactions to stress are more culturally acceptable in rural African American communities.
- Find ways to increase social support for those experiencing depressive symptoms. Stigma is a significant concern in rural communities. Rural African Americans experiencing depressive symptoms tend to socially isolate themselves, which, in turn, can worsen depressive symptoms.
- Provide mental health interventions in community-based settings. Residents suggest that offering mental health services in community settings, such as churches, would allow residents to receive treatment in less stigmatizing places and improve access to mental health care.
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