People of Color have a long way to go when it comes to ending the stigma associated with mental illnesses within the Black community. When was the last time you had a conversation with friends and family about mental health? Research done by the Substances and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that 18.6% of African-Americans suffer from at least one mental illness, translating to over 6 million African-American adults.
However, within the Black community there are several obstacles to acknowledging the existence and severity of mental illnesses. Mental health is not a common topic of discussion in African American households. Most notably in Black Christian households, the symptoms of mental illnesses are often reduced to issues that can be handled with prayer alone. Seeking the guidance of a counselor or considering the use of medication is often discouraged due to the fear of looking “crazy.”
Suffering in Silence Should Never be an Option
Several symptoms of mental illnesses can be easily disguised as normal reactions to the trials of life. For example, until I studied mental health in nursing school, I didn’t realize that most of my family members suffered from anxiety. What I brushed off as my family’s obsession with punctuality was actually a manifestation of their anxiety about being late.
I also didn’t realize that what I classified as a period of struggling with self-esteem in high school was actually my first major depressive episode. For years, I successfully buried the memories of intense hopelessness, despair, and my attempts to escape reality. I shrugged it off as nothing more than a phase. Alarmingly, “half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24” according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI).
Besides the fear of “looking crazy” in the black community, mental health is swept under the rug due to the lack of representation in treatment.
Finding counselors, therapists and psychiatrists of Color isn’t an easy task. The American Psychological Association (APA) released their 2016 member profile back in April 2017 which showcases the demographic and educational characteristics of its members. That collection of data revealed that less than 2 percent of the APA’s members are African-American.
Having mental health care practitioners that Black people can relate to is vital and would ease some of the worries about seeking treatment for mental illnesses in the Black community.
Fonda Bryant, an African American blogger for NAMI, wrote about the Black perspective of seeking help for mental illnesses in her blog post entitled “You Can’t “Pray Away” a Mental Condition”.
“Getting help for a mental health condition in my culture’s eyes is a sign of weakness, a personal flaw—not a legitimate, clinical condition. In fact, 63% of African-Americans believe that a mental health condition is a personal sign of weakness. To be honest, I believe that number is higher. I know when I walked into that mental hospital 22 years ago, I thought it was going to be everything I’d seen on TV and heard my mom talk about. It was neither. As bad as that day was, it was the beginning of me becoming educated about mental health—which was important not just for me, but for my culture and society as a whole.”
So, what can you do.
1. Educate yourself about the symptoms.
You’ve probably encountered someone who struggled with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD and had no idea. While it’s true that mental illnesses can manifest in different ways depending on the person, there are some symptoms that should raise red flags like prolonged periods of not eating, sleeping, and disinterest in what was once their favorite activities. Learn more about what to look for here.
2. Be willing to have a discussion with your friends and family.
Ending the stigma begins with open communication. Ask your family and friends how they are doing. Be willing to listen if they open up to you about their struggles. One of the best ways to support your loved ones is to remind them that their emotional and mental health is just as important as their physical health.
3. Share the available resources with your friends and family.
While there are some obstacles to professional treatment such as cost and lack of diversity among mental health providers, we do have access to free and low-cost resources such as the NAMI Helpline. We share memes, photos, and stories with friends and family almost every day. Surely, we can share meaningful resources that might save a life.
If we ever hope to end the stigma and prevent the loss of life, the impact of mental illnesses within the Black community shouldn’t be ignored. We are not powerless in the fight for mental health awareness. We must simply be willing to join and acknowledge the fight.
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