The Mental Health issue in African-American communities
The Stigma of Mental Health in African-American Communities
Mental illness isn’t an easy topic to discuss and even if it was, there are many stigmas that are often associated with it that still arise in many of our communities.
Dr. Thomas Troast, the director of the counseling center at Mount Mary University, said that even if people were to recognize mental illness in themselves, the stigmas can keep them from seeking assistance.
“I think part of it is that historically, the focus of having a mental illness was either broken or flawed and history tells us how those folks are handicapped somehow,” Troast said. “Historically mental illness was not easy to understand and many people would disregard it.”
The stigmas Troast mentioned are present in African-American communities, and for this community the stigma of weakness, or the idea of being flawed, could be enough to not seek help.
According to Mental Health America, “Stigma and judgment prevents African-Americans from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses and research indicates that Black/African-Americans believe that mild depression or anxiety would be considered ‘crazy’ in their social circles.”
Those social circles ignore or eliminate individuals who do not seem “normal,” and, according to Troast, family and community members are ashamed of individuals who mention having a mental illness.
“Where the stigma comes from is some families from some cultures have become ashamed of folks with mental diseases,” said Troast. “There is a stigma that somehow it is a weakness and you need to work harder and be brave. Act accordingly and change your mood as if you can do it with a night of sleep.”
According to its website, The National Alliance on Mental illness also says, “African-Americans may be reluctant to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with such conditions.”
Dr. Terri L. Jashinsky, associate professor of the graduate program in counseling at Mount Mary University, said even if mental illness is recognized in some communities, they have their own ways and ideas of how to deal with it.
“There are cultural differences around that some people say, ‘We will address this within our families or community,’” said Jashinsky. “They’re connected to a religion or a community in which seeking help is not what they generally do.There is a stigma around seeking help in different cultures and seeking help.”
Despite the mental health stigma within African-American communities, there are few who want help but don’t know how to recognize mental illness.
Not talking about the topic or lacking the knowledge needed to tackle it is a huge problem within this community. NAMI’s website states, “In the African-American community, many people misunderstand what a mental health condition is and don’t talk about this topic.”
NAMI also states, “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.”
In order for this community to recognize the signs of mental illness and find better ways of dealing with it, they would actually need resources.
“We need resources to have a qualified individual to do the educating, advocating and counseling and the social work,” said Troast. “For any community to progress, we need to dedicate resources into family care, family services, social work and social organizations.”
Lack of cultural competence amongst healthcare providers and professionals of mental illness is another issue that keeps African-Americans from receiving proper care.
According to NAMI, “This results in misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. African-Americans and other multicultural communities tend to receive poorer quality of care.”
Because health care professionals and providers lack cultural competencies and continue to discriminate against African-Americans, individuals refuse to or ignore help.
“There does not appear to be adequate resources or service for people living with mental illness and their families in any area, practically African-Americans,” said Theresa Jemison, the program coordinator at the National Alliance on Mental illness.
Jemison also said there are a limited number of clinicians who are African-American, especially psychiatrics. There is a need for more cultural competency.
How to Help
Addressing mental health issues among African-Americans must start within the communities.
“We need to get inside all cultures and present the idea of mental health care that is susceptible and it needs to come from the inside,” said Troast. “There is no question the suicide rates are very disturbing and we need folks that can go into organizations such as churches and social organizations and we need to talk to the kids.”
Focusing on African American perspectives is important and understanding where they came from important as well.
“I think a focused approach to address some of the situations and perspectives of the African-American community in the area of mental health facilitates identification, empathy and opens communication,” said Jemison.“When the community is able to identify with the presenters and learn that they are familiar with their environment and culture, the comfort level with discussing mental illness is increased, which leads to more information sharing and hopefully treatment and recovery.”
Troast said that bringing the resources to the community makes a huge difference. Instead of focusing on hospitals or large organizations, we should focus on the communities that the individuals are a part of. Making mental illness or seeking help for mental illness as a part of the community will make a big difference and especially when individuals start to see it as acceptable.
“We have to be sure we are providing the resources, that we are able to get individuals from the communities, from the cultures, and training programs and educational programs are available so that role models and peers inside those cultures are providing the counseling and advocates,” Troast said.
Like Troast, Jemison also said providing resources within the community makes a big difference.
“To progress more, organizations providing information, education, treatment services, clinicians, alternative treatment education and options recreation, communication vehicles, social inaction opportunities, increase family and community acceptance are needed,” said Jemison. “Resources for the person, family and loved ones are imperative. They are often the guide, support and advocate for the person living with the illness.”
Communities and individuals should be able to talk about mental illness without being pushed away. Jashinsky said having a conversation about the issue makes a difference.
“Regardless of a person’s background, have open conversations and let them know that services are available,” Jashinsky said. “Seeking out professional services and mental health support will benefit people.”
Troast also said that individuals feel isolated because no one talks about it and resources in schools are scarce. Having a conversation makes a difference.
“We need to make it okay to talk about mental health by addressing it honestly and safely,” Troast said. “They need to understand there are confidential places to go and we need to present viable and accessible services.”