You don’t have to look too far to find how mental illness harms the Black community. From people outside of our homes to members of our families, chances are you know someone dealing with a mental illness. The question is – are you doing anything to help them?
We’ve seen the horrific headlines far too many times, with sons and daughters killing their parents, people walking into crowded spaces and opening fire on everyone in sight and other instances involving people who allegedly “snap” and harm themselves or someone else.
In the end, are we all innocent? Or who is really guilty — the people who saw the signs coming but never did anything about it? Does someone just “snap” or is it that many of us are too embarrassed or unwilling to seek help for others who may not be capable of getting help for themselves? We need to stop turning the other cheek on an issue that is running rampant right under our noses!
Talking about mental health in the Black community is almost taboo. It’s something we hide in the closet, and while we might acknowledge it is there, there is often no conversation on how to get help for our family members with mental illnesses.
While our younger generation is putting mental health in the spotlight, the Black community at large still has many misconceptions about what mental illnesses are, where they come from, and how they can be treated.
There are so many factors that play into the mental health crisis in the Black community, and while many of those factors include institutional racism, Black people also contribute to the crisis.
We know that our experiences of being Black in America shape our mental health in both good and bad ways. Family, spirituality, music, community, and many other shared cultural experiences can be our sources of strength.
However, part of our shared experiences also include racism, discrimination, violence and inequity, all of which have significant impact on our mental health.
White supremacy and the atrocities behind it has attacked the mental wellbeing of African Americans since we were stolen and brought to this country. Let’s look back at chattel slavery in the United States. How many stories have you heard of enslaved people receiving therapy after enduring generations of torture, malnutrition, dehumanization, etc? Something as horrific as slavery was bound to produce schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, heightened anxiety, birth complications, and so much more. And it’s not as if our trauma ended at slavery, it has been ongoing, we have constantly been fighting for basic human rights while being abused the entire time. Not to mention the white supremacist ideals subconsciously altering our minds to perceive “White is Right” through various forms of media.
Black people are as prone to mental illness as anybody, and continuous trauma makes us even more vulnerable.
Why don’t we seek help for mental illnesses?
Let’s be honest, sometimes we may suppress conversations surrounding mental health, because we don’t want to be associated with having “crazy” or “weak” people in our households. These are the most prevalent stigmas about mental illnesses in the Black community. Research has found that 63% of African Americans view mental illnesses as a personal weakness.
This idea that mental illnesses, often hereditary and products of our environment, makes a person weak-willed is why so many suffer in silence. This suppression can lead to someone harming themselves and loved ones.
Socioeconomic disparities are another factor playing into our mental health crisis. The Black community is often excluded from educational, economic, health, and social resources. In 2018, 11.5% of Black Americans had no form of insurance.
Racism and Inequality in Health Care
Historically, Black people have been negatively affected by racism and discrimination in health care. Many Black people are still experiencing discrimination and cultural insensitivity in healthcare settings. Bias and cultural incompetency are leading causes of Black people being neglected or misdiagnosed. This is the root of distrust between the Black community and mental health professionals. For example, studies show that Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia when exhibiting symptoms of mood disorders or PTSD.
African-American News&Issues spoke to an expert, Linda Stalters, founder of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA), to find out what we can do to help, and what resources are available.
AANI: How can family and friends help a loved one when they start seeing signs of a mental illness?
Stalters: It is most critical to help them very early on because by the time they become psychotic they won’t accept treatment because they think nothing is wrong. Most people display symptoms from adolescence to adulthood. For most families, it can be difficult to discern normal adolescence from abnormal behavior.
If someone is isolating themselves, if they are looking around seeing things or hearing things that aren’t there, or having a little bit of paranoia, those are early signs that parents need to get their kids to a psychiatrist.
If someone starts acting differently, it’s important to get a thorough exam. It’s all about the brain, if someone has a brain tumor, it can have similar symptoms to mental illness. Someone with a mental illness may not think anything is wrong with them and will not seek treatment. You can word it in different way, like they’re just going for a checkup.
Hypersexuality, grandiosity, hyper-religiosity, paranoia, little sleep or sleeping too much can be symptoms of a mental illness.
AANI: Can mental illnesses be genetic?
Stalters: Mental illnesses can be genetic. If someone has one illness, it doesn’t mean you’ll have that exact illness, but there is a hereditary tendency for neuropsychiatric illnesses. Trauma can influence the brain and cause illness, different things a mother is exposed to can influence the brain, even head injuries can influence the brain and cause illnesses.
Medication helps the brain operate better. You don’t have to have a severe illness to get regular check-ups. It’s just like going to the dentist for regular checkups.
The takeaway is that we MUST NOT ignore the signs we are seeing and make sure we take the necessary steps to get our loved ones checked at the first sign of trouble. We don’t want to sit by and watch family and friends spiral into harmful situations, then later wonder if anything could have been done to prevent it. By changing how we view mental illnesses in our community, we can ensure that future generations find space to be vulnerable and ask for help without fear of being shunned or suppressed. Seek help. Remove the stigma.