America’s black population has historically suffered at the hands of powerful; enduring enslavement, isolation, and cultural carnage. Today, the legacy of these hardships manifests itself in nuanced micro-aggressions coupled with institutional discrimination which continues to adversely impact the mental health of the black population. This, in addition to the many barriers that impede our community to accessing proper mental health care, essentially hinders our ability, compared to other populations, to live a life of ease.

How did this happen?

Due to societal conditions, blacks are 20% more likely to endure circumstances that heighten the chances of having a mental illness. 

Common mental health disorders the nation suffers from include depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, one out of three blacks who need mental health care receive it and, compared to the general population, are more likely to stop treatment and less likely to receive follow-up care. Those with lower levels of education are also less inclined to seek mental health services as well.

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(PHOTO COURTSEY OF AMERICAN HEALTH NETWORK)

Why are we the most likely to suffer but the least likely to receive help?

Structural Racism and Poverty

A plethora of factors stemming from both inside and outside the community, thwart blacks ability to access mental health care. As stated previously, slavery, segregation and racial discrimination have disproportionately affected the black community by creating many challenges. 

Race-based exclusion from educational, social, and health resources yields socioeconomic discrepancies between the black community and other communities. When confronted with hunger, difficulty finding jobs, poverty and homelessness — which are all difficult living conditions — people are at a greater risk for mental health illnesses. Poverty, again, increases this possibility of mental illness because, for one it triggers poor mental stability and secondly, it renders individuals unable to obtain income and afford basic needs, including treatment.

Lack of Education and the Stigma

Often this financial insecurity leads to lower education rates. When the majority of a community does not have access to a quality education that informs them on the characteristics of a positive psychological well-being, it leads to a lack of information surrounding mental health. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 31% of African Americans believed that depression was a health problem. Many stigmatize mental health disorders with a personal weakness or a punishment due to the fact that the topic is taboo. 

Suffering in our community has been normalized throughout history. During slavery, mental illness resulted in more abuse forcing slaves to conceal their issues. This additionally forged a narrative that strength was associated with survival. Weakness, physical or mental, decreased your chance of survival. The lack of access to information on mental health and the stigma attached are barriers to recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions. Ultimately, urging the population to minimize the effects and impact of these conditions renders some members completely unaware of mental health services. This is not to say that we are completely devoid of forms of emotional support. Research finds that African Americans tend to resort to church, family, and community as sources of encouragement rather than turning to health care professionals.

Absence of Diversity in Mental Health Field

Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association found that even when black Americans can afford mental health care, they often have to deal with professionals who lack training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and behavioral health issues specific to the black community. This is exacerbated by the fact that 2% of the American Psychological Association members are African- American. Therefore, the lack of cultural competence by mental health care professionals results in misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. Conscious or unconscious bias and subliminal racism lead to insufficient medical care. Professionals who believe that struggles in the black community are expected, often normalize the mental illness of their patient and keep them from obtaining the treatment they need.

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(PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK KEVIN)

What can you do to get help?

Together these factors force our community to continually endure hardships in silence. A vast amount of people could be helped and uplifted if we tried to tackle these barriers. If we all worked to be a safe space for ourselves and each other, we can change the stigma of mental health illnesses and services in the black community and therefore eliminate the myth of strength.  Although cultural shifts take time, we must foster an environment in which our brothers and sisters can seek unconditional support.

The first step is to talk to your doctor who will first recommend a physical checkup. If a clinical mental illness is diagnosed, then your physician will refer you to a mental health specialist which will include either a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. 

The most common methods for treatment physicians will recommend is medication and psychotherapy. For more severe episodes of clinical mental illnesses research suggests medication. The medicine affects the chemical pathways of the brain related to moods and can take up to eight weeks before improving symptoms. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, works to assist patients in quelling their illness with a psychologist who offers procedures to help develop healthier and more effective life habits. This collaborative treatment is based on the relationship between you and the psychologist. It allows for a supportive environment where you can talk openly about your life free of judgment. In addition to treatment, participation in patient support groups can be helpful to the recovery process. In these groups, members share their personal experiences with illnesses. The exchange of information can help in developing coping skills and feeling less alone in recovery.

Although it may be terrifying to seek help, know that like any part of your body, your brain has the potential to get sick. Mental health conditions are not just emotional reactions to situations but medical conditions that impact how you think and your day-to-day life. If you want sufficient change, taking the initiative to find help will positively impact you and the community around you.

What are some alternative resources?