Mental health and the black community

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HOUSTON — “She’s a change of life baby,” is a phrase my great-grandmother used to describe my aunt, whom she gave birth to when she was nearing menopause. That description was the family’s excuse of why my aunt was not deemed “as smart” as her nine older siblings, and was just accepted to be “different” without getting any medical attention at an early age. At 66 years old, she is now a diagnosed schizophrenic.

It is a far-too common practice in the African American community that those suffering from mental health issues do not seek much-needed psychiatric treatment because “Black folks don’t go to the doctor, they go to church.”

May is Mental Health Month and we would like to use this time to help remove the stigma surrounding African Americans and mental health disorders.

Simply put, mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender or identity. Anyone can experience the challenges of mental illness regardless of their background, but African Americans oftentimes experience more severe forms of mental health conditions due to unmet needs and other barriers. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) outlined a list of reasons which may prevent African Americans from seeking treatment, and offered some valuable advice to help remove the stigma and shame surrounding the issue.

Lack of Information and Misunderstanding about Mental Health

In the Black community, many people misunderstand what a mental health condition is and don’t talk about this topic. This lack of knowledge leads many to believe that a mental health condition is a personal weakness or some sort of punishment from God.

Many African Americans also have trouble recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, leading to underestimating the effects and impact of mental health conditions. Some may think of depression as “the blues” or something to snap out of.

Seek professional help

In the African American community, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be great sources of strength and support, but those believing they may be suffering from mental health issues should turn to health care professionals for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Reluctance and Inability to Access Mental Health Services

Approximately 30% of African American adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%, for the following reasons:

  • Distrust and misdiagnosis. Historically, African Americans have been and continue to be negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the health care system. Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural competence by health professionals cause distrust and prevent many African Americans from seeking or staying in treatment.
  • Socio-economic factors also play a part and can make treatment options less available. In 2017, 11% of African Americans had no form of health insurance.

Provider Bias and Inequality of Care

Conscious or unconscious bias from providers and lack of cultural competence result in misdiagnosis and poorer quality of care for African Americans.

African Americans, especially women, are more likely to experience and mention physical symptoms related to mental health problems. For example, you may describe bodily aches and pains when talking about depression. A health care provider who is not culturally competent might not recognize these as symptoms of a mental health condition. Additionally, men are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.

Find the Right Provider

When meeting with your provider, ask questions to get a sense of their level of cultural sensitivity. Do not feel bad about asking questions such as:

  • 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?

Your mental health provider will play an important role in your treatment, so make sure you can work with this person and that you communicate well together. Mention your beliefs, values and cultural characteristics. Make sure that she understands them so that they can be considered in the course of your treatment, and if finances are preventing you from finding help, contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to see what services you qualify for.

Mental health is real, nothing to be ashamed of and many symptoms are treatable. Please seek help.