Let’s Chat: Mental Health in the Black Community

A conversation that often gets avoided

Have you ever tried to talk to your parents about your emotions but got immediately dismissed? Belittled? Told that you were young and had nothing to feel sad about? How about being told that the devil lived inside of you if you told them you were depressed? Or told that you were crazy? Did your grandparents genuinely believe that you had a mental disability because you disliked speaking to adults you didn’t know as a child, to where they told their friends you were “slow”?

image is by JeCorey Holder from blackyouthproject.com

Excuse the language in the above photo, but it is known to be all too true for us black folk.

And, maybe that last point was a little too specific, but that’s because I lived with these experiences while growing up. And in my adult years, I’ve come to notice that I wasn’t in this boat alone. As a matter of fact, it seems to be a common trend among African-American families.

Mental health can affect anyone regardless of race, color, gender identity, or age. Yet, it seems like African-Americans are commonly left out of the equation when it comes to the discussion of it. So when (according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health), African-Americans are 10% (psychiatry.org lists this statistic as being 20%) more likely to experience severe psychological distress, why is this such a taboo topic within our community?

Let’s look at some of the reasons. The following information is taken from here: the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The first is probably the most common/recognized: a complete lack of understanding on mental health. I personally find that this is an issue with our elders and older black family members in general. There is a societal pressure to be strong, fearless and brave within our community, and mental health conditions are viewed as a weakness. In addition to this, many (if not most) black families are religious in some shape or form. Oftentimes, our faith-driven relatives view mental health conditions as a punishment from God, which leads to being berated and being treated like the situation is the fault of the individual dealing with the condition. With this in mind, it’s important to note that only 30% of African-Americans receive treatment each year (versus the United States average of 43%). It’s easy math, but that means a whopping 70% of African-Americans do not. It should also be noted that approximately 13.3% of the US population identifies as Black. Because of the stigma and subsequent shame that occurs in this case, we are often reluctant to discuss these issues and seek treatment from a professional.

So what can be done to help with this? How do we help Black people become more comfortable with getting the help that they need? Going back to the idea of cultural competence, Black Americans would likely have a more positive experience with a provider that is culturally sensitive. It’s a good idea to ask questions about their cultural awareness, such as the following (from NAMI.org):

“Have you treated other African Americans?”

“Have you received training in cultural competence or on African American mental health?”

“How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?”

“How do you plan to integrate my beliefs and practices in my treatment?”

Asking these questions may feel awkward (it would be awkward for me to ask, anyway), but it’s so important to make sure that you’re able to work with your provider. Unfortunately, it isn’t safe to assume that every mental health care professional has had training in cultural competence and sensitivity. It isn’t the norm to have training in this area, but hopefully one day it will be. And we must take the initiative to make this happen, as no one else will do it for us.

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