Mental Health Stigma Affects African Americans
The National Newspaper Publishers Assn. is taking a closer look at the stigma of mental illness in the African American community. This is the first in a series.
By Stacy M. Brown
Historically, seeking psychotherapy has been difficult for African Americans, said Dr. Viola Drancoli, a licensed clinical psychologist who wrote a master thesis about the barriers to seeking mental health services in ethnic minority communities.
“It is not only a concept with European origin, but also a concept that does not fit the community-oriented, collective approach to healing and support that has been so helpful to this population,” Drancoli said.
“Instead of finding healing in coming together, the client is separated, often sitting in a one-on-one session with a professional. The idea of being focused on, analyzed, can be perceived as threatening,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says poverty level affects mental health status and African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.
Further, African Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic whites, and the death rate from suicide for African American men was more than four times greater than for African American women, in 2014.
A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, compared to 120 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
Yet, experts said even as the conversation around mental health has grown significantly with celebrities and others in the spotlight sharing their stories, most African Americans still refrain from seeking help.
“Unfortunately, among African Americans it remains taboo to talk about, and one reason is the fear of being labeled as crazy,” said Arron Muller, a licensed social worker.
“The intense fear of being judged has been a huge deterrent,” Muller said.
“In the African American community there is also an association that mental illness means weakness and the inability to handle your problems on your own or that anxiety or depressive symptoms should be addressed with praying and fasting,” he said.
Prayer and a relationship with God have their place in the full picture of health and wellness and a connection to God and leaning on a higher power does promote tremendous benefits for the brain and brain health, said Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neuro-therapist in Chicago.
“While having the strength to work on your own problems is a good characteristic to have, not recognizing when to seek help can be detrimental to overall health,” Jackson said.
“Turning to our pastors was needed in the past, but as concerns have grown, more resources are available,” she said, noting also that many African Americans eventually visit hospital emergency rooms with complaints that are in fact mental health issues.
“Some hospitals give referrals to mental health practitioners, but without proper education and information shared, follow through is unlikely,” Jackson said.
Educator and life coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus said there’s something else that happens in the African American community that should warrant consideration when discussing the stigma of mental illness.
“In all aspects of life, the African American community has had to appear better than the average person just to be seen as good enough,” Taylor-Klaus said.
“African American families have long been conscious of a need to dress their kids a little nicer in public, to expect their kids to behave more respectfully in public, and to follow directions immediately,” Taylor-Klaus said.
“The implications for the adults when kids don’t behave has been a risk-factor — when an ‘uppity’ child acts out, an African American adult can get in serious, life-threatening trouble. It’s not reasonable — but it’s a reality of African American life in the United States,” she said.
There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness and some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, according to Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness.
Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.
Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events.
As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. According to Mental Health America, mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of:
- Confused thinking
- Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
- Feelings of extreme highs and lows
- Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
- Social withdrawal
- Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Strong feelings of anger
- Strange thoughts (delusions)
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
- Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
- Suicidal thoughts
- Numerous unexplained physical ailments
- Substance use
In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:
- Substance use
- Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
- Excessive complaints of physical ailments
- Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
- Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
- Intense fear
- Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
- Frequent outbursts of anger
In Younger Children:
- Changes in school performance
- Poor grades despite strong efforts
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
- Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
- Persistent nightmares
- Persistent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
Part 2 in this series will tackle the growing number of suicides among young African Americans, an alarming trend that experts say is the result of poverty, racism, and post-traumatic stress syndrome both from military service and domestic and social problems.