Black Psychiatrists Weigh In On Mental Illness, Suicide And Mistrust Of Therapists In The Black Community
To help raise mental health awareness, we spoke to psychiatrists about healthy ways to address the sensitive subject of suicide and cope with mental illness.
If left unchecked or undiagnosed, mental health issues can become fatal, sometimes even resulting in suicide.
Although this diagnosis isn’t an automatic death sentence — with proper treatment and care, effective mental health management is achievable — the reality of suicide as a possible consequence has to be acknowledged, in order to constructively approach these sensitive subjects and take action in ways that can help change this narrative. The adverse impact of suicide doesn’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or economic status. However, there are obstacles unique to the Black community that can make confronting these issues especially difficult.
According to the CDC, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America in 2018. Another study shared via HealthDay News via WebMD found that “suicide deaths among [B]lack females aged 13 to 19 rose 182 [percent] between 2001 and 2017, while the rate among Black teen males rose 60 [percent] during that same period.”
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"According to the latest information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Blacks die by suicide at a rate of 6.85 per 100,000 people," Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, founder of Therapy for Black Girls, told Blavity.
These are more than statistics; behind every number is a story. Atlanta-based psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Oden stressed the idea of treating and responding to suicide as an actual illness. He explained that while experiencing suicidal thoughts, one can have an altered perception of reality, due to neurological changes in the brain.
"Your brain is not actually seeing things correctly, and your awareness has been distorted," Dr. Oden said.
Dr. Bradford explained that while there are resources for people specifically dealing with suicidal thoughts, seeking help for other mental illnesses within the Black community can be challenging at times.
"One of the challenges that remain in the community is the stigma that still exists related to seeking help. There continues to be a narrative that it is weak for someone to struggle with mental health concerns,” Dr. Bradford said. “I think that access to services is an issue in the Black community, as well. Many communities based mental health services and hospitals have been closed, and I think that for many there continues to be a mistrust of mental health professionals, particularly as it relates to finding a therapist whom one believes will really be able to hear your story."
For the Black community, in particular, the stress of systematic racism, prejudice, and lack of access to quality care and housing can create more barriers for those who are struggling with managing their mental health.
"We know that structural racism exists in every major system in American society. That's important to start with, because it contributes to the everyday stressors that people experience, in addition to the microaggressions and macroaggressions,” Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, Atlanta-based psychiatrist who is also a faculty member at Morehouse School of Medicine, told Blavity. “It makes living in a society more stressful for people of color than it is for other folks. We have a population that's at higher risk for having mental health issues now whether they are present or not."
Another risk factor is the misperception of mental illness in the Black community, and the desire to always appear strong.
"Our exposure to trauma can affect our rate with depression and feeling suicidal, and challenges that come with our perception of mental health. We carry that strength with us, and it is difficult to tell when you are in moments of weakness and you actually do need help and assistance when you are raised or within a culture of being very strong," Dr. Oden said.
"One of the challenges that remain in the community is the stigma that still exists related to seeking help. There continues to be a narrative that it is weak for someone to struggle with mental health concerns,” Bradford said.
Dr. Oden added that he believed that classifying death is suicide as a “cowardly act” is a misconception should be let go. Dr. Oden poignantly discussed how the language people use around suicide can cause one to feel apprehensive about seeking help, which can hurt them in the long run. Dr. Oden added that he believed that classifying death is suicide as a “cowardly act” is a misconception should be let go.
Similarly, Dr. Bradford claimed that she would like to see the narrative in society around suicide change.
"I’d like to see the narrative describing people who die by suicide as being selfish to go away. It’s incredibly harmful and inaccurate,” Dr. Bradford said. “I also think that it’s important that journalists follow the guidelines related to reporting on suicide that include things like not describing the means by which someone killed themself, not discussing whether or not there was a note, and not suggesting there was any one incident or event that may have led to someone dying by suicide.”
Dr. Vinson encouraged being more proactive, in terms of being willing to identify and address risk factors in a safe and supportive environment. She also noted how this can help decrease the risk of suicide.
"We need to think about how we as a society can help provide buffers to people against those risk factors, and also encourage people to get treatment when those risk factors are present," said Dr. Vinson said.
Whether triggered as a direct consequence of mental illness or a situational emotional struggle, those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to resist the urge to hold their pain inside — tell someone ASAP.
"Tell somebody that you trust and get in front of a professional,” Dr. Vinson said.
Though professional resources can vary depending on where one resides, Dr. Vinson suggested someone who is experiencing thoughts of suicide can seek care from their primary care providers, psychiatric hospitals, walk-in clinics, emergency departments and urgent care centers. Additional resources include Lines for Life’s free 24-hour crisis hotline and Open Path, nonprofit organization that connects those “who lack health insurance or whose health insurance doesn’t provide adequate mental health benefits” with affordable counseling services. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention also has a comprehensive list of places one can go to seek to help.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.