Okay, let’s start with something basic. Black Americans have a mental health problem. We just do.
Adult Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, according to the US HHS Office of Minority Health. Adult Black Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites. Lastly, while Black Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).
Mental health is an epidemic in the black community. Not just because of the unjust conditions Black Americans face, but also because of stigma. Stigma and judgment prevents us from seeking treatment for our mental illnesses. According to a study conducted by Ward, Wiltshire, Detry, and Brown in 2013 Black Americans hold beliefs related to stigma, psychological openness, and help-seeking, which in turn affects their coping behaviors. Generally speaking, the participants in this study were not very open to acknowledging psychological problems, but they were somewhat open to seek mental health services.
Research proves it, but I’m sure you know personally that many black people think that even mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. Furthermore, many believe that discussions about mental illness would not be appropriate even among family. We need to do better than this. We need to seek help. I sought therapy in 2013 and was in treatment for 3 years – it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. However, in 2013 the mental health stigma was even harsher than it is now. I didn’t tell people I was in therapy out of fear for what they’d say. In 2014 black mental health advocate, Karen Washington, died of an apparent suicide. Even for those who made mental health their every day, the black community was still suffering. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young black men. In 2010, over 80% of all Black suicides were males. Our people are dying.
There is hope. The conversation in the black community is shifting. During his Van Jones interview last fall, Jay -Z made it a point to address mental health disparities in black communities. During the interview, Jay-Z highlighted the need for trained counselors in school for children – particularly children of color. Jay-Z has frequently discussed the benefits of overcoming stigma and going to therapy – including lyrics about it in his last album, 4:44. Furthermore, Dr. Ruth Shim, Director of Cultural Psychiatry and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, Davis believes the shift in media to represent more black people will have a ripple effect in the black community – “At a very basic level, representation affects people’s identity. Having positive representations and people reflecting the diversity of what they can be and experience can be protective against depression and anxiety stemming from negative images.”
So what can you do? Start at home, monitor your own mental health and be your own advocate. If one of your loved ones is suffering, reach out and help them. Taking a Mental Health First Aid Course is also a great place to start.