In 2008, Congress designated July as Minority Mental Health Month in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell, writer of both fiction and non-fiction, advocate, and spokesperson for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). According to National Public Radio, prior to her death from cancer at 56, she challenged the stigma of mental illness which she perceived as a barrier that prevents African Americans from getting needed treatment.
At the heart of such stigma are beliefs, attitudes, misinformation and fear about mental disorders. Only 31 percent of African Americans believe that mental disorders are health problems (mentalhealthamerica.net), and they are more likely to seek medical care for conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure than for depression or anxiety.
According to NAMI, the top five reasons that African Americans did not report mental health issues or seek help are:
- Might hurt the family
- Might ruin their career
- People might think they are crazy
- They cannot afford to appear weak
- Shame and embarrassment
Belief systems can be barriers to seeking help for mental disorders or emotional stressors. There is the belief that African American women are strong and never crack under pressure. This suggests that to seek help somehow implies that one is less than one should be. Similarly, men are expected to “man up” when experiencing emotional distress.
The costs of not receiving treatment for mental health disorders are great and can be fatal. Major depression is the number-one cause of disability worldwide and, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in seven of those living in poverty suffer from depression. African American women are more likely to be depressed when compared to other races and are far less likely to receive treatment.
Poverty, racism, trauma and violence are all risk factors for poor mental health. With poverty, there is greater exposure to unpredictable life events leading to a lack of stability along with less access to community, familial and social supports.
With untreated mental health disorders, African American men become more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide and suicide. The leading cause of death for African American men ages 15-24 is homicide, followed by accidents and suicide.
The suicide rate for African American children age five to 11 doubled from 1993 to 2012 and is the ninth-leading cause of death for this age group (CDC). This is a public health crisis within the African American community.
The faith community is taking action on the impact of mental disorders in the African American community. Ten churches in Tennessee have developed Emotional Fitness Centers where members of the community can receive mental health screenings, education and referrals. Many churches around the country have developed action plans to improve not only the mental health but the physical health of their congregation.
Everyone can work to improve education and knowledge about the mental health of our loved ones and friends. You can assist by:
- Removing barriers to treatment and improving access to mental health treatment
- Removing stigma associated with mental health treatment
- Increasing awareness of cultural differences in the expression of emotional distress
- Having conversations about mental health and its importance
- Being a good listener
If you or someone you know is suicidal or having a mental health emergency, call Child Crisis Services at 612-348-2233, Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies for Adults (COPE) at 612-596-1223, HCMC Acute Psychiatric services (APS) at 612-873-3161, Suicide Prevention Hotline at 612-873-2222, or contact a mental health professional.
Deirdre Annice Golden, Ph.D., LP, is director of Behavioral Health for NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center Behavioral Health Clinic, 1313 Penn Ave. N. She welcomes reader responses to Deirdre.Golden@co.hennepin.mn.us, or call 612-543-2705.