Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I am just someone who has taken some classes and is very passionate about this subject.
In the wake of two horrific events that have taken place over the past few weeks, I am compelled to make this post and address a huge issue in the African-American community: mental health.
To be honest, I have not researched these two events enough to be considered an expert. I’m actually taking a social media hiatus because these tragedies are too much for me emotionally (I have traits of being an empath which means I tend to carry other people’s emotions). First, in San Bernardino, California, Karen Smith and one of her students were killed in her classroom by her estranged husband. He then turned the gun on himself. This past Sunday, Robert Godwin, Sr.’s death was broadcast over Facebook live when his killer picked him randomly to die because of issues in his relationship. I refuse to speak the names of the shooters.
I am assuming mental health was at the crux of these killings but as I read accounts, I am convinced mental health had its role in these senseless killings.
A few months ago, I posted about my struggles with depression and how I made the decision to seek professional help after praying and ignoring it stopped working for me. I am not “cured” as I don’t believe some mental health diagnosis can be cured. Instead, I have some more productive and healthy coping mechanisms.
By and large, the African American community ignores mental health. We don’t acknowledging our anger or sadness. We don’t believe in therapy. We don’t believe in medication. We don’t want to be labeled as crazy. Instead, we believe in prayer, ignoring it and dismissing it as “that’s just the way he/she is”.
According to Mental Health America, in 2014, 13.2 people in the United States identified themselves as being black or African American. Of this number, over 16% were diagnosed with a mental illness in the past year; that is 6.8 million people. I truly believe that number is higher due to the number of people who have not been diagnosed.
I read the follow statistics and even though I shouldn’t be, I was very surprised by what has been reported.
According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health:
- Adult Black/African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites.
- Adult Black/African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.
- Adult Black/African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites.
- And while Black/African Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, Black/African Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).
Black/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). Black/African Americans are also twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with schizophrenia (Mental Health America, 2017).
What has to happen for Black people to take their mental health serious? There are three reasons I think we are stuck in this mental health stigma:
- There are not enough African American therapists and counselors
Mental Health America states one reason black people do not go to therapy is because less than 2% of the members of the American Psychological Association are African Americans. We fear that someone who is not like us will not understand our struggles. And to me, this is such a valid reason we do not seek out therapy.
When looking for a therapist, regardless of ethnicity, it is important to find someone you are comfortable with because this person is going to be dealing with intimate parts of your life. Trusting someone of another ethnicity to be privy to your secrets can be a huge hindrance to our recovery. I am in grad school now earning my master’s in human services because I want to be a trusted face in the world of mental health for African Americans.
- We believe in God, not in therapy
Most black people are religious and therefore, we notoriously try to pray mental health away. For me, it didn’t work but God may be the comfort someone needs to be free from mental health issues. I believe in the power of prayer but I also believe in self-determination. Sometimes we can’t pray and forget it. We have to put in some effort, too. What’s that part about faith without works?
Side note: Even though some clergy are not licensed mental health professionals, they are often great sources of comfort and assistance to people suffering from mental health. Sometimes the simple gesture of listening can make the world of difference.
- We don’t understand mental health
There is such a negative stigma associated with mental health and it stops us from addressing our problems because we do not want these labels. By the same turn, we brag about being crazy, having anger issues or being bi-polar to justify our behavior. Oftentimes, people really do have anger issues or characteristics of bi-polar but we will not seek help to address it. Now, I will agree that mental health diagnosis are often abused (i.e. every black child does not have ADHD) but there are some times when the diagnosis is real. Research your symptoms and speak with a professional. Understanding what you are facing can be the first line of defense in treatment.
We have to get to a point where our mental health becomes serious for us. We have to start talking about it. We cannot continue to let it run rampant in our communities. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- If your employer offers health insurance, they often offer an employee assistance program with 3-5 free sessions of therapy. Check with your employer to see if this is available to you
- Some communities may also offer free anger management or other coping mechanism classes/sessions
- Some therapists offer a sliding fee scale for payment. Weekly therapy or medication may not be necessary but in the very least, seek help
- Check on your friends often. Don’t be so quick to write your friends off as crazy or accept violent behavior as a personality trait. Talk to your friend that is abusive or blows up at work and encourage them to seek help. Watch their behavior because what they do says a lot more than the words they speak. You cannot make your friend seek help but being there and being supportive can make a difference in their lives
- Parents check on your kids and listen when they talk. Our kids are faced with so much more pressure and stress than I ever remember enduring at my kid’s age. Social media has a big part in that so make sure you are checking their pages for any signs your child might be struggling. Have conversations with your kids about everything and be involved in their lives
So what else can we do to remedy our mental health crisis in the African American community? We have to get the conversation going around mental health. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I know we have to stop ignoring it.
Mental Health America (2017). Black and African American communities and mental health. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/african-american-mental-health#Source 3