Case Western Reserve University researchers examine how social relationships affect depression, suicide and other issues

African-Americans who regularly attend church are far less likely to suffer from mental-health issues, including depression and suicide, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University.

The findings, recently published in the Journal of Community Psychology, were based on a national survey of 3,000 study participants. (The African-American ethnic distinction is defined as participants with family origins from Africa.)

“In a nutshell, being in touch with family and church members is good for mental health,” said Ann W. Nguyen, an assistant professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve.

“People who are more emotionally close to church members have lower rates of suicide. Religion is support for [many] African-Americans.”

Having strong connections with family, friends and church members can be beneficial to mental health, Nguyen explained, because they serve as a guard against a range of psychiatric problems, such as depression, suicide, psychological distress and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What African-Americans describe as “family” generally is broader—think cousins, aunts and uncles—than what white people describe, according to respondents.

“There’s more frequency of contact—African-Americans are more in touch with church members—adding a layer of benefit,” Nguyen said.

Key takeaways

Among the African-Americans who participated in this study:

  • People who had more contact with church and family members had less depressive symptoms.
  • Those who received more emotional support from family had less depressive symptoms.
  • People who experienced more negative interactions with church and family members had more depressive symptoms.

“They likely reached out to the church community for support,” Nguyen said. “That’s what we call ‘resource mobilization.’”

When people experience conflicts in their relationships, those connections may also be a source of stress and negatively impact mental health, she added.

For instance, Nguyen’s research found that negative interactions with family and church members may be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and PTSD.

Previous research has shown that African-Americans have lower rates of depression that whites. However, despite being less prevalent, depression is more severe, chronic, persistent and disabling for African-Americans than for whites. These disparities constitute an excess burden of depression for African-Americans, according to the new research.

For most respondents, negative interactions tended to be infrequent, with positive interactions tending to far outnumber the negative ones. Those negative interactions include how often study participants reported that family members criticize and/or take advantage of them and place excessive demands on them.

Among the few studies dedicated specifically to the mental health of African-Americans in relation to social structures, the research complements a body of data analyzing family and church separately—but not the interaction and its effect on mental health, Nguyen said.

Nguyen conducted the study with researchers from the University of Michigan, with financial support from the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.


For more information, contact Colin McEwen at colin.mcewen@case.edu