College of Public Health researchers will work with Bethel Presbyterian Church in North Philadelphia in a study to identify mental health needs of individuals in the community the church serves, as part of a program that connects the city’s public health institutions with community organizations that have research needs.

Bethel Presbyterian Church is a Black congregation that has been a center of service to its surrounding low-income neighborhoods for more than 70 years. The church operates food and clothing distribution programs. It provides hot meals and offers senior services.

“In the last couple of years, as we have offered these services, we became aware of the need for help with mental health issues, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Grace Marable, an ordained deacon who leads the outreach programs at Bethel. “There’s a lot of trauma in this area. There’s the breakdown of the dynamics of the family, there’s violence in North Philly. People have turned to alcohol or drugs. People have been saying ‘I really need to see my psychiatrist. I haven't seen him in a year,’ or ‘I need medication.’ We're trying to put together resources where we can get them assistance they need.”

Yaara Zisman-Ilani, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, has collaborated with Bethel to design community-based participatory research to assess community members’ mental health needs and challenges.

“Community members of the church experience unmet mental health needs that have increased since the outbreak of COVID-19. Some may not know how to access mental health services, or maybe they can't, because they're uninsured or afraid because of the associated stigma or other factors,” says Zisman-Ilani, whose research involves engaging individuals with mental illnesses in their mental health care. “We know from Deacon Marable and members of the church that there are increased mental health needs, but we don’t know what they are. We have developed a research plan in a co-production process with the church to interview and survey community members and get a better sense of their mental health needs, barriers and the challenges to receive mental health care.”

The survey will include measures of anxiety and depression, and attitudes towards psychiatric medications and psychiatric care, Zisman-Ilani says. “We are also going to ask about resiliency, if there are resources in their environment that can help and provide support. We hope the study will give the Bethel community data and tools to help guide their decisions.” 

The project is funded through Community-Driven Research Day, a joint effort of Temple University, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University, and the University of Pennsylvania. At the annual event, community groups present defined projects where they believe they can benefit from partnerships with research institutions. The groups are paired with researchers, with whom they develop projects that can help the organizations analyze data, more formally understand their communities’ needs, and ultimately develop services and interventions to improve outcomes for the people they serve.

This community-based participatory research is expected to begin in early 2022. A follow-up project would include designing an intervention based on the findings. One possibility is a program that would include referrals to a local mental health organization offering free therapy sessions.

“It’s all about supporting the community,” Deacon Marable says. “Helping to give them hope and encouragement to their daily lives. Some people have fallen for whatever reason and can't seem to put it back together. So we try to show them the hope and the possibility.”