Chronic pain is something many people all over the world deal with and are all too familiar with the numerous side effects of such pain. Chronic pain can be caused by a variety of things such as fibromyalgia, surgery or something undiagnosed. However, chronic pain often is a gateway to other types of pain; it is estimated that 35% to 45% of people who suffer with chronic pain also experience depression with their chronic pain.
Mental health disorders and chronic pain often are tethered together, increasing the negative effects of each as the other worsens. This detrimental combination is further accentuated among Black people, specifically Black women.
There have been many false stereotypes circulating in the medical world about Black people and our propensity to withstand pain:
- “Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.”
- “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.”
- “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than white people’s.”
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 40% of students in the first and second year class believed the false stereotype that Black people have thicker skin than white people. Thus, it should be no surprise that 70% of Black women from the ages of 18 to 49 have experienced negative interactions with a care giver, including pain dismissal.
This is a major issue because lives are potentially at stake, and it is not relegated just to low-class Black women. Serena Williams, arguably the best female tennis player in history, even struggled to have her pain taken seriously. Had she not been diligent in fighting for the doctors to listen to her, she could have died from blood clots that formed in her lungs.
“No matter the status, Black women are still at risk for dismissal and their lives are at stake.”
Often times when Black women speak up about their pain, it truly is a matter of life and death. What Serena’s story teaches us is that no matter the status, Black women are still at risk for dismissal and their lives are at stake.
Many Black women suffering from chronic pain testify to the strain that is placed on the mental health of a person dealing with chronic pain. Not only is the body hurting, but the soul hurts, along with the mind. Black women who suffer through chronic pain not only have to face their bodily pain each day, but too often the pain of rejection and dismissal of their pain, which negatively affects their mental health. Suicidal ideations kick in, depression occurs, hopelessness arises and relationships are affected — all because of dismissed pain.
As spiritual caregivers, ministers, pastors and the like are called and expected to care for the people we come in contact with. Caring for the soul can bleed its way into caring for a person’s body and mind as well. Caring for a person’s soul does not necessarily mean quoting scriptural truths to them like: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Or detailing how in the story of the woman with the issue of blood the woman suffered for 12 years until Jesus healed her. None of these help with the present pain that they are experiencing and are often interpreted as a deflection of their circumstance.
So what is a minister to do in this situation? What do we do when a Black congregant or member of the flock is experiencing chronic pain and mental disorders?
“First things first, believe them!”
First things first, believe them! Data show us they most likely already have experienced some type of distrust or dismissal from their physical care giver, so it would not be in their best interest for their spiritual care giver also to lead with distrust of their situation.
A person knows their own body better than any other human being knows their body, so trust their judgment and their feelings.
Second, pray with them and for them. There is power in prayer and even more power in multiple prayers. James 5:16 says: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” which means God hears the prayers of the redeemed.
Do not ask a person if they have prayed to God about their pain, because chances are they already have prayed to God, which is why they have come to their spiritual care giver. This is because of the truth of James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Also, be persistent in prayer as Jesus teaches in Luke 18:1-8 in the Parable of the Persistent Widow.
Third, help them find community. One of the most common major side effects of chronic pain is loss of community due to physical limitations and mental inhibitions that prevent a person from engaging with others.
As a spiritual care giver, one must walk alongside this person and help them find community. This can look like connecting them with a small group, connecting them with a therapist or even connecting them with a medical provider who will adequately respond to their needs.
Understand that spiritual care givers have limitations too, but know that a spiritual care giver can serve as a small bridge to connect a person to spiritual wellness through Jesus Christ.
These three suggestions are a great start in the fight against racial bias in the medical world, but above all, we must be advocates. As spiritual care givers, advocate for our fellow image bearers.
The will of God is always bent toward those who are suffering, so let’s be the hands and feet of God to bless others.
Zach Barber is originally from Georgetown, Ky. He recently earned a master of divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University and is furthering his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland, to research preaching.