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This Pitt program trains members of Black churches to provide bereavement counseling

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Researchers from Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences are helping address racial disparities in mental health care by training congregants of Black churches in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and Wilkinsburg Borough in counseling skills, creating new entry points for residents to access services.

“Because I’m on the ground and in conversation with residents, what became evident to me is that mental health care is lacking in the Homewood area,” said Channing Moreland, former director of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ Wellness Pavilion at Pitt’s Community Engagement Center in Homewood, adding, “this is a discussion that people of color historically haven’t talked about.”

In 2021, with funding from the Pitt Innovation Challenge, Moreland and Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health faculty members Laura Dietz and Quiana Golphin created TRIBUTE: Training Religious Leaders In Bereavement Counseling to Upskill Treatment Experiences.

The premise of TRIBUTE is simple: Relying on church leaders in Black communities will reduce the stigma associated with accessing treatment and normalize conversations about mental health.

When developing TRIBUTE, Moreland, Golphin and Dietz tapped community stakeholders to help shape the training. The community input made clear that partnering with neighborhood clergy would be crucial in reaching those in need.

“One thing about the Black church is that we are agents of social change because of our experience with injustice. This is not something we say — it is something we do because of lived experience,” said Jonathon Counts, a licensed clinical social worker and Homewood AME Zion Church pastor who partners with the TRIBUTE team.

“There is a long-standing historical tradition for Black churches to serve as support, safe places and resources for communities of color,” Counts added. “Clergy within Black churches are trusted pillars for the community and first responders to crisis, tragedies and loss in the neighborhoods they serve.”

The program’s focus on mourning speaks to the role systemic racism plays in Black people’s lives and its connection to both historical and ongoing trauma, including gun violence and the challenges brought by the pandemic, said Moreland

“Communities of color, including Homewood, have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic and have experienced rates of death twice those seen in white communities,” she said.

TRIBUTE also addresses the significant shortage of mental health clinicians of color, said Dietz.

“Often, people of color want to receive mental health treatment from trained individuals rooted in their communities with shared experiences, but there’s a shortage of clinicians of color in the field. TRIBUTE increases the number of people available to deliver culturally responsive counseling and increases access to mental health services,” she said.

The keystone of TRIBUTE’s training protocol is interpersonal counseling, a brief, evidence-based talking therapy. The intervention, used by practitioners since the ’70s, has been an effective model for helping individuals process grief and depression that community health workers have delivered in underresourced countries all over the world.

Graduates of the training, called Emotional Support Advocates, will implement the program in their congregations under the supervision of licensed mental health providers in the TRIBUTE leadership team.

After individuals seeking care from Emotional Support Advocates complete four counseling sessions, they have the option to continue with a bereavement support group or receive assistance in accessing additional mental health services at Primary Health Care Services, a federally qualified health center directed by Khavah Murray, who is also part of the TRIBUTE leadership team.

Moreland noted that the program aims to help people live with grief rather than get over it.

“We train our religious leaders how to help someone drill down into their experience of grief and to help them be able to get support and be able to move,” said Moreland.

“We're helping them to live with their grief and to carry it more effectively so that they can begin to live again.”


— Nichole Faina, photography by Mike Drazdzinski

Pictured: From left, the TRIBUTE team is led by: Assistant Professor Quiana Golphin, Channing Moreland, Associate Professor Laura Dietz and Primary Care Services Director Khavah Murray.

Make your mark with the Pitt Innovation Challenge

Do you have an innovative idea to transform the community or the world? Applications for the 2023 Pitt Innovation Challenge are due by 11:59 p.m. May 12. Winning teams from any discipline can receive up to $100,000 for their bold solution to challenging health problems. Primary investigators must be full-time Pitt faculty members.