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WVU studies faith community nurses and mental health


Faith communities aren’t solely places for worship and religion, according to West Virginia University research. They can also serve as conduits in addressing the mental health needs of congregants.

A new study by Veronica Gallo, with the WVU School of Nursing, highlights how faith community nurses can be key to the mental health of people who attend churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship.

Faith community nurses are bachelor’s-prepared registered nurses who integrate physical, mental, social and spiritual tenets of health into care. They work with individuals, families and faith communities as a whole, but they may also work within a larger healthcare system.

“It’s important to look at faith communities, faith community nurses and health ministries in a different way,” Gallo, an assistant professor in the Family/Community Health Department, said. “Faith communities aren’t just places we go to learn about religion. They really can play a pivotal role in all aspects of our health, and I think we need to embrace and act upon that.”

Gallo assessed the mental health needs of a rural faith community with approximately 800 members.

Her findings appear in the Journal of Christian Nursing.

To gather both quantitative and qualitative data, she did interviews, analyzed demographic and behavioral statistics, gathered health-related data from secondary sources and observed the health services offered across the community.

She discovered that the faith community had three overarching needs: coping strategies, knowledge of mental health disorders in general and familiarity with the specific health services available to them.

Because faith community nurses are “insiders,” they have earned congregants’ trust and understand their health needs within the context of the faith community.

For example, Gallo — a faith community nurse herself — has observed a “generational difference” in how the younger and older people she works with approach mental health.

Adolescents in the community tend to be more familiar with, and comfortable talking about, mental health concepts. They are more comfortable pursuing therapy. They know what depression is.

“But then I’ve also worked with some people in their 70s, and they’re more reluctant to talk about mental health and depression,” Gallo said. “So, we just use different words. We won’t talk about ‘mental health.’ We’ll talk about ‘emotional wellbeing’ — because we all have emotions. ‘How is your emotional health right now? How are you feeling today? What are your struggles?’ Those terms are a little easier for them to relate to.”

Although Gallo’s study focused on a Catholic church, faith community nurses can be associated with any faith community.

Their tasks can vary widely. One faith community nurse could screen congregants for high blood pressure, lead a yoga session, organize a suicide-prevention class and direct congregants to community services — such as substance misuse prevention and addiction treatment — all in the same month.

“It’s about integrating faith into all of those practices,” Gallo said. “It’s a focus on holistic health: mind, body and spirit.”

A holistic approach may be especially important right now, when one in five Americans has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse. Feelings of isolation can trigger new mental health problems and worsen old ones. The pandemic has been linked to upticks in depression, anxiety, opioid overdoses and disordered eating.

“The other thing is, there was a lot of loss,” Gallo said. “A lot of deaths happened during the pandemic, and while those deaths were happening, the families and loved ones really couldn’t connect with their social networks. And we know those connections are very important, not just for mental health, but for all aspects of health.”

By mending broken social connections and reinforcing the ones that remain, faith community nurses can improve mental health across the communities they know so well.

“A church is a safe space,” Gallo said. “Going to church isn’t like going to a doctor’s office. That’s intimidating. But coming to the social hall at church is associated with good things.”