Efforts to overcome the stigma of mental health in the Black community are a work in progress as the challenges of negative attitudes and outlooks persist amid ongoing pressures of societal standards and lingering mistrust of the healthcare system.
To be sure, there is a stigma associated with mental illness that knows no racial boundaries. But the topic takes on a different kind of connotation when it comes to Black people, who statistics show are particularly influenced by longstanding beliefs and misconceptions about mental health.
To put it bluntly: Race matters when discussing mental health, and that is especially true for the Black community, whose associated travails are compounded by racism.
One of the main challenges in attempting to overcome the stigma of mental health in the Black community has been the willingness to be open to being diagnosed. There is a widespread belief particularly within the Black community that anything having to do with mental health and mental illness is a decided weakness. Part of the Black experience in this world is remaining strong in the face of adversity, and confronting mental health can be seen as giving in to such a perceived weakness.
“For many in the Black community, it can be incredibly challenging to discuss the topic of mental health due to this concern about how they may be perceived by others,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has said. “This fear could prevent people from seeking mental health care when they really need it.”
There are several distinct differences in the use of mental health services that fall along racial lines.
Black people account for just about half of the number of white people seeking help for mental health, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal government agency.
Socioeconomic factors contribute considerably to that phenomenon, as “Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security,” statistics from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) show.
That equals roughly one in three Black people who actually need mental health help don’t receive it at all.
Part of that truth is threefold: because Black folks are less likely to be informed about mental health care options; they’re rarely included in research; and they typically opt for treatment in an emergency room instead of seeking out mental health experts.
There is also the bias and prejudice from mental health care providers that Black people must contend with as inequalities persist in that arena.
That is to speak nothing of the scourge of Black people being misdiagnosed with mental illness, something that the National Institutes of Health has described as “an important factor for prevention and appropriate treatment of African-American patients with psychiatric issues.”
It’s all part of Black people’s overall mistrust of the healthcare system as far too many inequalities persist across the board.
Social justice implications
Aside from the above factors and concerns, as with many other aspects of everyday life, Black people suffering from mental illness need to stay aware of how police respond to such crises.
In recent years, reports have proliferated of police responding to Black people in the throes of mental health crises by routinely resorting to using lethal force instead of actually providing the wellness check they were called for.
Those social justice and policing implications may also play a role in deterring Black people from prioritizing their mental health and seeking out the proper care.
Is spirituality the answer?
During a recent panel discussion facilitated by NewsOne in order to raise awareness about mental health and the Black community, cable sports anchor Mike Hill alluded to the role spirituality often plays.
“When you’re going through your dramas you’re not only affecting yourself but also the loved ones around you,” Hill said. “Sometimes as Black folks, we’ll suppress things. We will say it’s ok give it to Jesus and God will take care of it, but it’s still in the back of your mind, it’s still in your body and in your energy. Black people are the strongest people on the face of this earth. But we take on all that negative energy and just hold on to it for so long that we don’t truly let it go.”
Hill and the other panelists also stressed the importance of finding peace in spirituality even when you may not be in traditional therapy.
“One thing that we have power over is our mind and unfortunately, we’re not doing things to feed our spirit,” said Celeste The Therapist, a mental health advocate. “When we’re hungry we know to go to the refrigerator, but we struggle spiritually, we struggle with what to do because we haven’t been taught. But there are ways to do that. There are practices, deep breathing, nature. We have things surrounding us that can help. Nobody gets paid to talk about sleep, nobody gets paid to talk about walking, Think about what am I doing to feed my mind and how am I being intentional about it every day.”
Steps to take
There are four key steps NAMI recommends specifically to help erase the stigma of mental health in the Black community.
The first is to gather as much data as possible to help inform any future decisions like when, where and how to seek help.
Next, being vocal about mental health can be a game-changer. Instead of suffering in silence, speaking up can not only be mentally liberating but it can also possibly encourage someone else going through a similar situation to do the same in a potential domino effect that can reach more people.
After that, keeping an open mind about mental health and seeking treatment is crucial. Much like Step 2, doing so can be contagious and rub off on others.
Lastly, Black folks are encouraged to believe people when they share concerns about mental health. Doing so is at once both affirming and supportive and can contribute to ending the stigma of mental health in the Black community.
Leading by example
While these things are being done by everyday folks, it helps to have high-profile individuals championing the practices to help bolster the fact that prioritizing mental health is something anybody from any walk of life can do.
Sports champions like tennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles have been inspirations in the mental health arena, particularly in the Black community. Their very public stands about mental health have undoubtedly helped embolden others who look like them to take similar mental health steps.
Or, as Osaka put it in a personal essay published last year in TIME, “it’s O.K. not to be O.K.”
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