Behind the Stigma of Mental Health in the Black Community

Trailblazing pioneers like Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver, to modern day heroes like Anita Hill have made enormous contributions to the fight for social, racial, and economic justice. Despite these efforts, true justice among the black community will remain incomplete until mental health disparities among the community are addressed. In fact, according to historians, Dr.King struggled with severe depression, but kept his incidents with depression a closely held secret.

While there may be progress in the awareness of mental health conditions, we struggle as a nation when it comes to prioritizing the mental health of most minority groups, especially African Americans.

Only one in three African Americans who need mental health care services receives it. Plaguing issues such as mass incarceration, poverty, and financial hardships have increased mental illnesses in the Black community. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over 7 million Black citizens reported having a mental illness. In 2018, 58.2 percent of Black young adults and nearly 50 percent of adults with serious mental illness did not receive treatment.

So why are Black Americans not receiving proper mental health care?

The stigmatization of seeking mental health care within many Black communities is one factor.

Alani Valdez, an Elementary Education major at FAU says, “There’s definitely a stigma regarding mental health in our community. I think this is because for generations, many Black families raised their household on the notion that they have to be ‘strong’…This idea is relevant now to where Black people have to grapple with the fact that their family members might be killed by racists…then there’s code switching, financial crises; All of these trauma-causing scenarios are enough to leave many Black people with a mental illness, but it’s never talked about because of the ever-occurring stigma that black people have to be ‘strong in their struggle’…”.

Ruth White, a Clinical Associate Professor in social work at the University of Southern California who specializes in mental health advocacy provides insight into why this mental health stigma persists in black communities.

“Much of the pushback against seeking treatment stems from ideas along the lines of: We have survived so much adversity and now someone is going to say that there’s something wrong with us,” White says, in an article by the  University of Southern California School of Social Work .  Seeking mental health care is often viewed as a weakness in Black communities. This correlates with the survivalist mentality from systemic oppression.

Victoria Jean-Julien, a Neuroscience major at FAU says, “…Black people feel that they need to be strong at all times because of our past struggles. To them, having a mental health issue or even wanting to talk about it is a form of weakness, even though it isn’t”.

The root of the mental health stigma among Black people can be traced back to slavery. During this time, it was commonly believed that slaves were not able to develop mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Instead, they made up mental health disorders to keep African Americans as enslaved peoples.

In 1851, prominent American physician Samuel Cartwright defined “drapetomania” as a treatable mental illness that caused enslaved individuals to flee from captivity. He stated that the disorder was caused by slave masters who “made themselves too familiar with the slaves, treating them as equals.” He believed that slaves needed to be treated like children to “cure” and prevent them from running away. This treatment included “whipping the devil out of them”.

The mislabeling of behavior, such as escaping slavery, as a byproduct of mental illness did not stop there. This also occurred in the civil rights era. In a 1968 article in the esteemed Archives of General Psychiatry, schizophrenia was described as a “protest psychosis” in which black men developed “hostile and aggressive feelings” and “delusional anti-whiteness” after listening to or aligning with activist groups such as Black Power, the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Mainstream media was describing schizophrenia as a condition of angry black masculinity or warning that crazed black schizophrenic killers on the loose.

In all, the black psyche was inherently perceived to be immoral and inherently criminal. This perception is still reflected today. If an African American person with a mental illness acts out in violence, they are much more likely to be criminalized than to be given the opportunity to receive mental health care, according to White. This has stoked the fear that those that openly acknowledge their mental health struggles will be met with legal repercussions rather than proper treatment.

Researchers also cite the role of religion in the mental health and survival strategies of the black community. Religion is one of the most pertaining black cultural traits. According to Pew Research, African Americans are among the most religious of any racial or ethnic group, with 87 percent reporting a formal religious affiliation. In the black community, religious practices such as prayer are often seen as a replacement for medical treatment.

Effectively destigmatizing mental health care within black communities will require the removal of systemic hurdles and shifting harmful narratives. We have to expand our voices and services into our community to reduce critical issues and the stigma.

According to McClean Hospital, this includes:

  • Bringing awareness to the use of stigmatizing language around mental illness
  • Educating family, friends, and colleagues about the unique challenges of mental illness within the Black community
  • Becoming aware of our own attitudes and beliefs toward the Black community to reduce implicit bias and negative assumptions

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