The role of pastors in Korean American mental health

The protestant church is a major organizing force for the Korean American community; approximately 70-80% of Korean Americans identify as Christian, and the majority of these Christians attend church more than once a week (Hurh & Kim, 1990; The Presbyterian Panel, 1998). Needless to say, pastors and church leaders play an important role in the Korean immigrant community, serving as not only spiritual leaders but also as social service providers, teachers, translators, and counselors (Lee, Hanner, Cho, Han, & Kim, 2008). As trusted leaders of the church, pastors are often the first responders to mental health problems among congregants. This may be because few Korean Americans use professional mental health services, due to language barriers, the lack of culturally sensitive mental health providers, stigma and shame surrounding mental health, and a lack of awareness about mental health disorders and services (Lee et al., 2008). Among the least likely to seek professional help among all ethnic groups, Korean Americans may feel more comfortable sharing their emotional and mental challenges with familiar church leaders and clergy, who undoubtedly have a wealth of knowledge and experiences in helping congregants.  

However, research shows that church leaders and pastors often struggle to meet the mental health needs of their Korean American church members. More specifically, pastors often report feeling under-equipped to recognize and treat mental health disorders and are unknowledgeable about the existing services in the area. Furthermore, some pastors equate mental health struggles as spiritual or religious problems, and this understanding renders them less likely to refer church members to mental health services (Kim-Goh, 1993).

One thing that can play an important role in encouraging service use among Korean Americans who could benefit from it is mental health literacy. Mental health literacy refers to the knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about mental disorders that help their recognition, management, and prevention (Jorm, Korten, Jacomb, Christensen, Rodgers, 1997). The major components of mental health literacy include:

(1) The ability to identify mental health problems;

(2) Knowledge about the causes and risk factors of mental health problems;

(3) Knowledge and beliefs about the treatment of mental health problems;

(4) Knowledge about resources and services;

A 2016 study by Dr. Yuri Jang at the University of Texas explored Korean American pastors’ mental health literacy related to depression (Jang et al., 2016). A total of seventeen clergy members from Florida and Tampa participated in in-depth interviews that tap into the major components of mental health literacy. The interview included questions such as “What do you think depression is?” “How does it occur?” “Have you encountered anyone with signs of depression in your church? If so, what did you do?” “What do you think about seeking professional help for depression” and “Do you know whom or where to contact if someone needs professional mental health services?”

Overall, this study found that 65% of Korean American pastors reported difficulties with identifying depression. Some pastors defined depression as an imbalance of emotions that God gave us, some stated that true Christians cannot get depressed, and some believed that depression cannot be attributed to a lack of faith. In terms of knowledge about causes and risk factors, most pastors believed that depression is caused by a combination of psychological, social, and biological factors. They identified social isolation, stressful life events, acculturation, and family issues as major precipitants of depression. Most pastors believed that religious practices such as praying, attending church services, reading the Bible, and seeking counseling from clergy as the most effective treatment for depression. However, most pastors also did not reject the idea of seeking professional services, especially those who believed that depression was not caused only by religious factors. Finally, most pastors reported that they were unaware of professional mental health services in the community and also pointed to an urgent need of training related to mental health among pastors. One pastor said, “Yes, we do need training. Indeed, we don’t have a degree in mental health. What we can do is limited because we are not trained to provide mental health counselling. I’d like to learn counseling skills so that I can use them in my service (p. 6)”.

Taken together, this study highlights the need for more conversations about mental health within the church, as well as mental health education for pastors. By raising mental health literacy among pastors, mental health challenges may be recognized much earlier, and church members in need may be more likely to be referred out to the appropriate services. Mental health providers within the community could collaborate with the Korean American church to promote mental health literacy within the church and facilitate referrals. Pastors and church leaders play a pivotal role in the lives of Korean Americans, and it is only appropriate that they receive the supports that they deserve.