In many ways, mental illness no longer holds the same stigma as it once did just a few decades ago. There are more resources dedicated to mental health now than ever before, and employers, schools and institutions cannot discriminate against or penalize someone due to their struggles with numerous mental health concerns. Today, insurance companies must include psychological, psychiatric and addiction disorders as a part of their overall health coverage. And yet, within communities of color, the stigma remains. Black people are far less likely to acknowledge mental health issues, recognize that there is a problem, and ultimately seek help to address them than their white counterparts. African American males are particularly concerned with the stigma. Many Black folks believe that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles and that any discussion about mental illness would not be appropriate even among family members. It’s just something you don’t talk about! Folks are more likely to make a joke about it than to take it seriously. This silent threat to our community is growing and if it continues to live in the shadows and remain unaddressed, we will continue to lose our young people, women and men to its dis-ease.
What continues to be unaddressed within the African American community is the particular social, political and historic factors that contribute to the overall mental health of the community. We continue to deny the traumatic and historic effects of the legacy of chattel slavery, state-sponsored terrorism, Jim Crow, segregation, race-based exclusion from healthcare, education, social and economic resources, which all translate into socioeconomic disparities experienced disproportionally by African American people generationally. Research shows that socioeconomic status is inextricably bound to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health and mental health disease. The criminal justice system and the increase of mass incarceration within the Black community, and the “privatization” of prisons giving rise to the prison industrial complex, including the school to prison pipeline, has exacerbated the mental health issues among our families and within our neighborhoods.
What can we do? When mental health providers are predominantly white and less than 2 percent of the American Psychological Association members are Black, it creates a serious concern. The lack of culturally sensitive and knowledgeable psychologists who are adequately equipped to address the needs of the community they serve remains a serious challenge. This has been documented by some patients reporting that they have experienced racism during treatment and micro-aggressions from therapists due either to ignorance or a lack of competency. Despite these issues, we must begin to address mental illness in our community. We must get our children help because the incidents of suicide and attempted suicide have begun to rise among African American youths and young adults. We can no longer tell jokes about it and pretend that mental illness is not affecting us and, even worse, killing us. Many people attempt to address it through prayer and believe that God will “turn it around.” Personally, I believe prayer does change things, but some things cannot be changed through prayer alone. Mental health concerns need treatment and often victims of its wrath need medication. We must stop denying, hiding, ignoring and joking about mental illness and begin to find some help to address it.