Editorial note: Our guest writer is board certified counselor Dr. Janeé Avent Harris, who is an assistant professor at East Carolina University. She is an active researcher, publisher, and consultant on subject matters such as diversity and cultural issues, examining the role of religion/spirituality in African American mental health help-seeking behaviors, counselor training and clinical supervision, and multicultural considerations in counselor education.
To say that we are in the midst of crises and unprecedented times may be a gross understatement. As with every new year, many of us anticipated a fresh start at the beginning of 2020. Within the first few months of the year, as events began to unfold, many individuals went from hopefulness to despair and even began to share the sentiments of “2020 is canceled” on social media. As a nation, the pain, turmoil, and uncertainty are palpable. We see it in the news, on social media, in our work as counselors, and in our own homes. More specifically, the recent tragic murders of Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the COVID-19 global health pandemic have exposed years' worth of systemic racism and disparities in minoritized populations. As a result of these crises, many Black Americans are left processing both individual and community trauma and grief. This community trauma likely exacerbates psychological distress that may already be present in Black communities.
Historically, Black Americans have been less likely than other ethnic/racial populations to seek professional counseling services. Instead, many Blacks have opted to seek solace in more informal support resources such as family, friends, and community organizations. There are many reasons for these disparities in help-seeking, including lack of access, mistrust of mental health professionals, and stigma. As a result, one of the most commonly used coping strategies among Black Americans has been religion and spirituality. More specifically, Black pastors, in many ways, have been mental health first responders in times of crises and life experiences.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, church communities have had to restructure the ways in which they conduct ministry. Parishioners have not been able to gather in traditional Sunday morning worship experiences and Bible studies. Many churches are now delivering services online via technology and social media platforms. This may present some challenges, as churches may have varying levels of technology capacity and experience. Also, particularly in rural areas, some communities may not have reliable internet access. Further, traditional funeral and grieving practices, often hosted in church buildings, have been restricted because of COVID health guidelines. Thus, many Black Americans are left to figure out new ways to celebrate loved ones and grieve without their spiritual leaders and communities.
This may leave individuals asking, “Where do I go?” for support. How can I process this stress? Who will understand what I am feeling? In a time when many Black Americans are longing for community, some may be mourning the loss of faith spaces. Counselors need to be sensitive to these feelings and work with local faith leaders to create innovative and culturally responsive ways to meet these needs that integrate spirituality and mental health. For instance, counselors may volunteer to help start small affinity groups in local churches. These groups would be intimate gatherings that adhere to COVID-19 guidelines and provide members the opportunity to connect and process the traumas they may be experiencing. Further, counselors should seek continuing education on how to integrate more spiritual and religious interventions in counseling sessions. Perhaps you may ask clients to identify one part of their faith community gatherings they miss most and find ways to recreate these in sessions. For example, for some clients who may miss the praise and worship experience, counselors may invite clients to play a meaningful song during the session.
The restricted access to church buildings not only impacts spiritual coping, but there are political and social implications as well. Although the Black church is not void of faults, it is vital to note the ways in which faith communities have been leaders in social justice efforts in the past. Notably, during the Civil Rights Movement, many of the leaders were pastors such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As protestors flood streets throughout our nation, churches are reimagining ways they can be active participants and supports for their congregants while still honoring public safety recommendations.
Counselors have a unique opportunity to collaborate with faith leaders to help meet the needs of community members. While it is ideal to form partnerships with community stakeholders prior to a crisis, counselors can still take this opportunity to create meaningful collaborations. Counselors should be intentional in approaching these partnerships from a strengths-based approach with cultural humility.
In closing, I attempted to write this article as objectively as possible. But in all transparency, and in times like these, I am keenly aware of my multiple identities. I am a Black, Christian woman who grew up in church. As counselors, we must be self-aware and acknowledge our experiences. And for many Black counselors, we are living in between two realities. While we are committed to maintaining our professional roles, attending to clients, educating counselors-in-training, and engaging in scholarship, we are also human. For me, I know that I am sad, hopeful, disappointed, angry, and motivated at the same time. And I miss church. And I imagine many of our clients do too.
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