Stigma and the Black culture
By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
Oftentimes, people are advised to take care of their physical health. But also of great importance is taking care of one’s mental health, according to health professionals. On Feb. 25, the Dallas Police Department Office of Community Affairs presented a virtual conference on the importance of mental health in the Black community.
The presentation, Implicit Bias and Mental Health “For the Culture” was given by Dr. Ryan Sutton, director of Heman Sweatt Center for Black Male and Professor of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Sutton discussed the way mental health has been seen in the Black community and what that relationship has looked like and the stigma around it.
“I want to move on to why that stigma exists because I think too often what we do is we pin the Black community for having a stigma and blame the Black community for having the stigma when in fact there are historical references or historical reasons to why the stigma exists today,” Sutton said.
He said the relationship with mental health in the Black community has been colored by stigma.
“Stigma is huge within our culture, I think we are getting better at it as we go through and advance through the ages, but stigma has been very powerful and a leading factor within the relationships between mental health and the Black community,” Sutton said. Too often what we will do is blame a community for having a stigma without recognizing that the stigma exists for a reason. I am under a formal philosophy that all behavior is purposeful. Whether it is adaptive or maladaptive, the anger is purposeful and the reason why we bring about a behavior is for a reason.”
He believed has caused the community to feel shame or disgrace and that it has roots in surviving something else.
“I think a lot of times you might hear in your circles and your communities and your family – I will be honest, I’m a psychologist and I still hear within my family – ‘I am not crazy,’ right? ‘Mental health or illness is a sign of weakness,’ ‘Toughen up,’ ‘People are in worse situations,’ ‘Get over it,’ ‘Stop crying about everything,’ ‘You are not going out there and airing our dirty laundry.’
“I don’t know if big mama when you are growing up might of used to say. ‘Don’t go out there airing our dirty laundry,’ ‘Don’t go out there talking about what goes on in this house,’ ‘What happens in this house, stays in this house.”
Sutton said people were conditioned to remain silent if they have a mental health problem.
“When you are conditioned with this idea of let me just stay silent, let me keep it in, let me bury it down, push it down, let me save face, if you will, with the struggles that I might be experiencing internally and externally, right? … ‘They must be off their meds.’ And typically when you hear somebody make that kind of comment, it’s because someone is [supposedly] doing something they are not supposed to be doing. Because somebody is tripping and they must be off their meds,” Sutton said. “So the idea is someone’s happy and as soon as they break down, they got to have a mental illness. So there is a lot of stigma packed into that.”
According to Sutton, because faith is deeply engrained in Black culture, it also plays a factor in how one deals with mental illness. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus Muslim or whatever the faith, people might tell the person to just pray about it or not to speak that over their life.
However, he said many churches have begun to recognize the impact faith has on mental health.
Sutton said instead of blaming the Black community for why this exists, he thinks it is important for people to take a few steps back and look at where this comes from.
“I guarantee you it does not necessarily come innately from our community,” Sutton said. “So why does this exist?”
He stated that history has a lot to do with the way we think about this issue. He noted that Dr. Benjamin Rush, known as the father of psychiatry and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had an influence as well.
“Dr. Rush was a critic of slavery,” Sutton said. “He said this is something that we got to abolish and do away with. He also came up with the disease of ineptitude or the idea of the disease of being Black. How can you be a critic of slavery but also come up with the disease of being Black? Dr. Rush said it was a mild form of leprosy and the treatment was becoming White.
How can these two seemingly contradictory ideas coexist in the single individual? And what I am saying is I think there is a lot that is passed down politically, socially, climately and culturally, that is ingrained in us to have us think a certain way even if explicitly, we believe something else.
“You fast forward a few years and you hear Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who coined the term drapetomania, a desire to flee from servitude. When a slave ran away, there was a mental health condition; basically drapetomania, and the cure for it was whipping. And you know they had it because they started to develop bodily reactions of welts on their body. But there was a second diagnosis that was called dysaesthesia aethiopica, and this was a disease of rascality and laziness. And if a slave was unmotivated, if an enslaved person was unmotivated, and an enslaved person was lazy, and if an enslaved person was acting out, they had this and the cure was again to whip them.”
Sutton concluded that as a field and as a society, people are quicker to label and condemn the person outside of the greater context, instead of demeaning the context that is nonadaptive.
“You don’t talk down on slavery,” he said. “Slavery is not the issue. The enslaved person is. Dr. Teo Powell said that in fact enslaved people when they became free, they actually became more insane. And the cure was to enslave them again. And you fast forward all the way to the 1960’s, and some of the doctors said after the 1967 Detroit riots, all this urban violence you all can read between the lines, urban violence was brain dysfunction, we need to give them all them bottles. So we want to stop urban violence, let’s go sever parts of their brain. Bottom line is you take their frontal cortex where all your executive functioning, planning, and all that is happening and you sever it. And you say that is going to stop the urban violence. But you can also see what kind of other impacts that would have on an individual. So if this is the basis in roots of the relationship between my field mental health in our Black community, wouldn’t you have stigma too? Wouldn’t you be a little apprehensive into stepping into something like this.”