Blacks and Mental Illness: Suffering in Silence

African Americans endure more intense and frequent mental and behavioral health issues than their counterparts, at least in part related to poverty and exposure to racism and discrimination, both of which disproportionally affect minorities.

African Americans share the same mental health issues as the rest of the population, with arguably even greater stressors due to racism, prejudice, and economic disparities. Meanwhile, many wonder why African Americans shy away from “getting help” as a potential solution to challenges such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, marriage problems, and parenting issues.

Mental health or mental illness is rarely discussed within the Black community. In the Black community, mental illness is thought of as a “White person’s disease;” it is nothing that affects Black people. But mental illness is not dependent upon race or gender. Mental health is extremely important for any and everyone, no matter their race, who may experience or deal with mental health issues. Without mental health, we cannot be healthy. Everyone experiences emotional ups and downs, including Black people.

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

The stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black community is heavy, as Black people feel as though choosing to seek professional help, such as a therapist, is a sign of weakness. The topic of mental health is largely absent from discourse in the Black community. It is not a topic that is talked about amongst friends or family given the stigma associated with mental illness in the Black community. In fact, some family members may even ridicule or make fun of the individual dealing with the mental illness. As a result, individuals in the Black community choose to suffer in silence rather than tell anyone what they may be dealing with.

One of the reasons psychologists say Black people suffer more from mental illness versus their White counterparts is because of psycho-social reasons, including socio-economic status, poverty, and crime in African American communities.

Here are a few things to consider as we address mental illness as a collective community:

  • African Americans in the United States are less likely to receive accurate diagnoses than their Caucasian counterparts.
  • Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African Americans from accessing care due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding where only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American.
  • African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though this may at times be necessary. The health care providers they seek may not be aware of this important aspect of a person’s life.
  • Programs in African American communities sponsored by respected institutions, such as churches and local community groups can increase awareness of mental health issues and resources and decrease the related stigma.

For illnesses, such as non-chronic depression, let’s compare it to someone with an ankle sprain. With the sprain, it’s momentarily devastating and sometimes debilitating, but within a period of days or weeks, with proper care, a person is back to feeling whole again and walking in normal stride.

For those with chronic mental illness, be it bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder or other illnesses, let’s look at it like someone with diabetes (another illness greatly affecting African Americans).

Without proper care and management of diabetes, it can kill. But with proper care, a person can live a long, productive and positive life. Of course, it’s no great joy to constantly stick one’s self and monitor one’s blood sugar and diet, but it’s a daily necessity to remain healthy. The same can be said for the treatments of the various mental diseases that afflict millions of African Americans – they may not be “fun,” but they can help to maintain a relatively healthy life.

But, as with a sprained ankle, there’s no stigma attached to diabetes. No one says stay away from him or her because that person has diabetes. The same needs to be true about those suffering from mental illness.

Encourage people battling mental illness. Support them. Guide them to seek professional assistance. Let’s lose the stigma associated with those under psychiatric care. In fact, we should applaud them for getting the care they need.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn, every Saturday at 9:00am (EST) on www. wurdradio.com, and Sundays at 8:30am (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.