It is Black History Month here in the United States. This is a good time for those of us in America to spend some time reflecting on the contributions that African-Americans have made to our society. It is also a time to remember the difficulties that they have faced, especially in light of the history of racism as it has been perpetuated by white Americans.
Here/Hear is intimately concerned with that history of racism because of the effect that has had on the mental well-being and mental health of the African-American community. Let me start with some statistics from Mental Health America and NAMI. First, African-Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Some common disorders that black America is more likely to suffer from include major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide (especially among young black men), and post-traumatic stress disorder. Second, 16% (or 6.8 million people) of the African-American population had a diagnosable mental illness in the last year. Third, 20% of African-American report some kind of serious psychological distress in their lives. Fourth, African-American males are more likely to attempt suicide than their white counterparts, but less likely to actually die. Fifth, Adult African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than adult whites. This all creates a serious problem in the African-American community.
Now the question is why mental illness is such a problem in the African-American community. According to NAMI, a major reason is because African Americans have unmet needs and other barriers to getting mental health help. There is lack of understanding in African-American community of what a mental health condition is and what the symptoms are. This lack of understanding comes, namely, from the fact that their needs are unmet and there are barriers to them getting access to good healthcare. Part of this comes from the fact that African-Americans have less access to mental health resources due to socio-economic factors and general geography. There is also the problem that there is a severe lack of African-Americans who are counselors or psychiatrists or who work in the mental health field. This all leads to a major problem with getting access to care.
There also is.a distrust of diagnosis in African-American communities. And this comes from the historical adversity that the community has had to endure in America. When things like slavery and sharecropping are combined with the historic race-based exclusion of health, education, social, and economic resources, we have great socioeconomic disparities perpetuated by both overt and covert racism. The disparities that come from this historic exclusion of black people from places of help actually lead to greater stress on people’s mental health. This greater stress can result in things like homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, and impoverishment. And all of these problems lead to greater stress and mental health problems.
So, the problems in the African-American community in relation to mental health are quite apparent. The question is, what can we do?
First, we must make access to mental health services in urban areas more accessible and affordable. This is why it is important to keep things like mental health protections in the Affordable Care Act, to actually keep the ACA, to have things like Medicaid, and government run programs that ensure access to mental healthcare for all people. As well, there must be a concerted effort to have clinics and offices in urban areas, where there are few places to access mental healthcare now.
Second, we must also erase the “drug-to-prison pipeline.” Addicts are not criminals but have a mental illness. It is important to begin treating those with addiction disorders in a way that is consistent with the way we would treat other disorders. We can no longer expect prisons and jails to be the primary place of recovery for those struggling with addictions.
Third, we have to begin helping African-Americans get into the profession of counseling or psychiatry or other mental health service providers. At this moment, less than 2% of the American Psychological Association is African-American. This is a terrible statistic as it shows that the profession does not have the ability to empathize or know the experiences that many African-Americans are going through on a daily basis. So, we need more African-Americans in the profession.
Fourth, we need to begin breaking the stigma of mental illness in African-American communities. Like all places in America, there is still stigma that comes with having a mental illness in the black community. We need to begin educating African-Americans, preferably from a young age, that mental illness is a real illness and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in regards to having it.
Those are just four quick thoughts. If you want to delve into this deeper, I’d encourage you to check out Imade at Depressed While Black. You can also check out our conversation with her on our podcast.