Blacks more comfortable discussing mental health

JAZELLE HUNT | 5/18/2015, 8:19 a.m.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there are more than 40 million Americans currently dealing with mental illnesses, ...
A silhouette of William, a 62-year-old inmate, who has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder. Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there are more than 40 million Americans currently dealing with mental illnesses, not including issues related to drug and alcohol use.

But mental health treatment goes far beyond diagnoses and prescriptions.

“You don’t have to be what we know as mentally ill. You don’t have to be schizophrenic or bipolar to seek therapy. You can seek therapy because your dog died, and you just feel sad about it,” said Nikki Davis, a prison psychologist and substance abuse and family therapist in Virginia. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your weakness comes from [when] you don’t seek the help you know you need.”

Davis was about 10 years old the first time she saw a therapist. One of her siblings seemed to be struggling with an emotional disorder, and her parents felt the whole family could use some help.

May is Mental Health Month and, for many Black people, the concept of mental health treatment is somewhere between laughable and extravagant. Reasons abound for Black people who dismiss mental health treatment.

“In the Black community we are hesitant to trust medical professionals. We think that mental health or mental illness is a White person’s disease. We have a tendency to want to pray it away,” Davis said. “[In therapy] they get an unbiased opinion. You’re going to get a non-judgmental and unbiased environment that is going to be as honest and forthcoming as it can be without damaging you.”

Therapy or counseling involves talking to an educated and licensed medical professional in a safe, confidential, non-judgmental environment.

Regular counseling sessions take place in a comfortable, private office, and are usually about an hour each week or biweekly but the client can request a different arrangement.

The first visit is a basic meet-and-greet, plus paperwork. The paperwork asks both standard medical questions, as might be seen in a doctor’s office or hospital, as well as personal life questions, such as “How much sleep do you get each night?” or “Is there any personal or family history of drug use?” The first few conversations will be light, centering on hobbies, work and key people. Clients can ask questions of the therapist as well, both personal and as they relate to counseling.

In the following session or sessions, the conversation will likely be about whatever led the client to begin therapy.

“A lot of times I’m not [clients’] favorite person. I don’t push and prod for you to make breakthroughs, but I will ask you those questions to make you think. So that’s one thing people don’t like to do, they don’t like to think about their own issues or their own flaws that might be contributing to the negative aspects of their lives,” Davis said. “If I can help someone say, ‘I’m going to break myself out of my own personal hell that I’ve put myself into’ by talking, then I’m going to do just that.”

Everything said in counseling is strictly confidential. Therapists cannot tell relatives or employers anything without the client’s permission, not even a confirmation that a person is receiving counseling. There are two exceptions to this: If the therapist received a subpoena, or if the client is an immediate danger to him/herself or others.