Roughly one in five adults in the United States currently lives with a mental health condition. Mental illness has become a topic of great interest, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw higher rates of depression, stress, and anxiety. Despite the numbers, a negative stigma towards mental illness still exists in the Black community, and other communities of color.
Historically and presently, the Black community has made significant contributions to the fight for social, racial, and economic justice. Is there complete social justice if mental health disparities exist, though? Mental health is an integral component to overall health, and the Black community continues to experience increased rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Many prominent Black psychiatrists, doctors, and psychologists explain that this negative view may stem from inadequate access to responsive mental health care.
The Root Of This Negative Stigma
Christine M. Crawford, MD, MPH, suggests that this negative stigma can be traced back to slavery. During that era, the belief was that slaves were not sophisticated enough to develop mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. Historic misconceptions such as these conditioned the Black community to ignore signs and symptoms of mental illness. Additionally, ignoring mental illness forced people to chalk up these experiences to being “tired” or “stressed.” These inaccurate descriptions became a part of the lexicon, passing down from generation to generation. Little did they know that these gross underestimations and inaccuracies would contribute to a culture of fear or misinformation about mental illness.
Research On Mental Health In The Black Community
According to several research studies, the Black community is 20% more likely to experience mental health problems. Black emerging adults (ages 18-25) also have a higher risk of encountering mental health problems with lower rates of access to mental health services. Systemic barriers also exist disproportionately in the United States. A 2019 analysis found that 40% of the U.S. homeless population, 50% of the U.S. prison population, and 45% of U.S. children in foster care are Black Americans. The sad reality is that these disparities are not a new phenomenon.
A growing body of research also suggests that psychological changes and trauma can pass down genetically. Trauma from the past can be so engrained in genes that it passes from one generation to another. This puts future generations of Black individuals at a greater risk for developing mental illness. Additionally, there are indirect traumatic stressors that psychologically affect the Black community. These stressors include watching videos of police brutality, such as the killing of George Floyd. Couple all of that with a negative stigma around mental illness and there is little room to correct the problem.
How To Overcome The Stigma
There are barriers that make it harder for Black Americans to accept mental illness as something that is treatable. There is no need to feel ashamed by mental illness, and it is possible for change to happen. It’s also important to acknowledge the negative stigma before positive change occurs. Mental illness does not discriminate against race or gender.
Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University, suggests that failure to recognize symptoms of mental illness also contributes to a negative stigma. This is common because talking about mental health is uncommon. Without regular, open discussion about mental health, people can feel embarrassed about potential symptoms. For example, signs of stress or changes in mood can indicate a mental health condition. Remaining silent about these signs can only increase the severity of the condition.
After discussing the symptoms and talking openly about mental health, the next step is to seek help. There needs to be a collective effort in the U.S. to increase community awareness, especially in areas populated by people of color. More access to facilities and open conversations about mental illness will only benefit everyone.
If we can’t remove the negative stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community, we knowingly allow another generations to grow up without proper information about mental health. Resources are everything, and can help improve the chances of a healthier, happier life. Don’t be afraid to lift your voice to achieve the true healing we need.