The Role of Church Support Networks in the Relationship between Discrimination and Psychiatric Disorders among Older African Americans


Few studies have examined the effects of discrimination on mental health specifically among older African Americans despite it being a common experience in this population. Further, knowledge on social resources, such as social relationships, that could mitigate the effects of discrimination is limited in this population. Given the historical and contemporaneous importance of the Black church in African American communities, church members are important support network members and a major source of social support for older African Americans.


To address these knowledge gaps, this study will (1) examine the association between racial discrimination and psychiatric disorders; and (2) determine whether church relationships moderate the impact of racial discrimination on psychiatric disorders.


Data from African American respondents aged 55 and older were drawn from the National Survey of American Life (N = 837). Church relationship variables included receipt of emotional support from, frequency of contact with, and subjective closeness to church members. Regression analyses were used to test the study aims.


Analyses indicated that more frequent experiences of racial discrimination were associated with meeting criteria for any DSM-IV disorder and a greater number of DSM-IV disorders. Significant interactions revealed that frequency of contact with and subjective closeness to church members mitigated the association between discrimination and meeting criteria for any 12-month disorder and number of 12-month disorders.

Conclusions and Implications

Altogether, these findings support the literature on the detrimental effects of discrimination on the mental health of older African Americans and provide a more nuanced understanding of the role of church members in the lives of older African Americans. The study findings suggest that church relationships are effective stress coping resources for older African Americans dealing with discrimination. Given the importance and relevance of church members, initial clinical assessments should assess clients’ level of religious involvement and relationships with church members.

The full study is available in Review of Religious Research.