"We grew up in the church": A critical discourse analysis of Black and White rural residents' perceptions of mental health

Soc Sci Med. 2023 Nov:336:116245. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2023.116245. Epub 2023 Sep 12.


Rationale: Known as the "Black-White mental health paradox," Black Americans typically report better mental health than White Americans, despite chronic exposure to the psychologically harmful effects of racism and discrimination. Yet, researchers rarely examine how mental health is experienced across racial groups in economically distressed rural regions where all residents have disproportionately less access to mental healthcare resources.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to explore how the racialized social system potentially contributes to the mental health beliefs and attitudes of racially majoritized and minoritized rural residents.

Methods: We conducted a secondary analysis of 29 health-focused oral history interviews from Black American (n = 16) and White American (n = 13) adults in rural North Carolina. Through critical discourse analysis, we found nuanced discourses linked to three mental-health-related topics: mental illness, stressors, and coping.

Results: White rural residents' condemning discourses illustrated how their beliefs about mental illnesses were rooted in meritocratic notions of individual choice and personal responsibility. Conversely, Black rural residents offered compassionate discourses toward those who experience mental illness, and they described how macro-level mechanisms can affect individual well-being. Stressors also differed along racial lines, such that White residents were primarily concerned about perceived social changes, and Black residents referenced experiences of interpersonal and structural racism. Related to coping, Black and White rural residents characterized the mental health benefits of social support from involvement in their respective religious organizations. Only Black residents signified that a personal relationship with a higher power was an essential positive coping mechanism.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that belief (or disbelief) in meritocratic ideology and specific religious components could be important factors to probe with Black-White patterning in mental health outcomes. This research also suggests that sociocultural factors can disparately contribute to mental health beliefs and attitudes among diverse rural populations.

Keywords: Mental health; Meritocracy; Religion; Rural health; Social determinants of health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Black People / psychology
  • Humans
  • Mental Health* / ethnology
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Racism* / ethnology
  • Racism* / psychology
  • Rural Population
  • Stress, Psychological / ethnology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • White
  • White People / psychology