• Kyia Young

It's time to talk about mental health in the black community

April 29, 2017

Mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed within the black community. African Americans tend to stray away from this conversation so we wouldn’t have to confront its severity or make ourselves aware that we are a victim of this problem.

According to MentalHealth.gov, “mental” health is defined as, “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” African Americans have a background of not seeking help when faced with a mental illness issue.

Lack of information and misunderstanding; faith, spirituality and community (“pray it away”); reluctance and inability to access mental health services; medications; and provider biases and inequality of care are just some of the main reasons why blacks tend to stray away from professional help. The main common mental health issues among blacks are: “major depression, ADHD, suicide (among young black men) and PTSD because blacks are more likely to become victims of violent crime.”

Blacks are also 20 percent more likely to suffer from a mental illness than white people, or the remainder of the U.S. population. African Americans have historically faced maltreatments in forms of microaggressive acts, racism, violence and self-infliction in the past, and these cases of mental illness are less likely to become resolved because of a black person’s fear of judgment, their “pray it away” mentality or denial.

One historical example of mental illness would be slavery. “Ebony” article, “Black Folks and Mental Health: Why Do We Suffer in Silence?” by Nia Hamm, explains how slaves were so accustomed to normalizing their own suffering.

“During slavery, mental illness often resulted in a more inhuman lifestyle including frequent beatings and abuse, which forced many slaves to hide their issues,” she wrote. “Over time, strength became equated with survival and weakness (including mental illness) meant you might not survive.” The survival instinct from slavery plays a part today when blacks are afraid of admitting their ‘weaknesses’ and are too ashamed of expressing their feelings or dilemmas to relatives, friends or a counselor.

Although there are some black people that seek professional help, we still serve as an underrepresented part in research for mental health. It seems whenever studies are provided to our community, the individuals who choose to participate have received a poorer quality of care than others with a mental illness. In the scholarly journal article, “The Angry Black Woman: The Impact of Pejorative Stereotype on Psychotherapy with Black Women” by Wendy Ashley, she reiterates how researchers choose not to study a person of color’s mental health issues because they feel as if blacks are harder to study and that they are more prone to ignorance.

Statistics from “Let’s Erase the Stigma” on black mental health explain how mental health affects blacks and where these illnesses possibly stem from.

  • Adult blacks living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty

  • Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites

  • And while blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent versus 6.3 percent)

  • African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Mass media also hinders black people from seeking professional counseling. The media tends to give white criminals the excuse for committing violent crimes is because they have a mental illness. However, blacks are always labeled as being “street thugs” or coming from a “broken home.” These two labels exclude blacks from being victims of mental illness and further tarnishes their illnesses because of their fear of judgment and provides a feeling of hopelessness.

Some early warning signs of mental illness are:

  • Pulling away from people and usual activities

  • Having low or no energy

  • Feeling numb or like nothing matters

  • Feeling helpless or hopeless

  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual

  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared

  • Severe mood swings

  • Thinking of harming yourself or others

In 2008, U.S. Representatives designated July as The National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell. Campbell was an American best-selling author, journalist and teacher “known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.”

Your mental health takes a toll on not only your daily life but on others around you. Family and friends should not be your only source for seeking guidance. Although friends and family work as a beneficial support system, professional help is always needed in order to take steps towards healing and rehabilitation.

For more information regarding mental illnesses and their severity, please visit the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Counseling and Testing Center (located in O.K. Allen Hall), NAMI on campus, or any local centers around the Acadiana community. The steps you make towards fighting this stigma within the black community could possibly save thousands of black lives.


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