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Mental illness, stigma and African Americans

GLENN ELLIS | 4/29/2018, 11:33 p.m.
Since 1949, May has been recognized as Mental Health Month.
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Strategies for Well-Being

Since 1949, May has been recognized as Mental Health Month.

With African Americans leading the country with troubling statistics in areas like unemployment, child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence – all of which can exacerbate stress – it is perhaps not surprising that the African American community leads the country in mental-health struggles.

There’s no getting around it, institutional racism is a leading cause of mental illness in African Americans.

In the early 1970’s, the final report of the Joint Commission on Mental Health of Children acknowledged that racism was, for some, America’s “number one public health problem.”

Granted, it’s not the only cause, but racism can psychologically affect Blacks by allowing society to deny their value as individuals, and by compelling them to internalize the racist conceptions of themselves. Racist stressors may also lead to increased physiological reactivity which, when sustained for a period of time, can lead to cardiovascular disorders and diseases.

For African American adults, perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities between Blacks and other populations in the United States, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.

Most Americans, particularly African Americans, underestimate the impact of mental disorders. Many believe symptoms of mental illnesses, such as depression, are “just the blues.”

Often, African Americans turn to family, church and community to cope. Forgiveness and grace are, indeed, hallmarks of the Black church. In one study, approximately 85 percent of African Americans respondents described themselves as “fairly religious” or “religious,” and prayer was among the most common way of coping with stress.

African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services. Yet, adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their White counterparts.

Historically, African Americans have normalized our own suffering. During slavery, mental illness often resulted in a more inhumane lifestyle including frequent beatings and abuse, which forced many slaves to hide their issues. Over time, strength became equated with survival and weakness – including mental illness – meant you might not survive. That stigma still exists today.

Growing up, I was always told to read the Bible, or pray to “get over” feelings that I now know were depression. In adulthood, I have learned that it’s okay to not be okay.

African Americans may be resistant to seek treatment because they fear it may reflect badly on their families – an outward admission of the family’s failure to handle problems internally. For many African Americans who suffer from mental disorders, most hold negative attitudes about people who obtain mental health care. No matter how bad their situation was, they didn’t want to be one of “those people.”

Many African Americans, especially those who’ve ascended the socio-economic and professional ladder in the face of institutionalized racism, struggle with feeling compelled to be strong. Some are so socially isolated that they feel they can’t trust anyone or share anything and must go it alone.