One of the most common adages in the African American community around the topic of mental health has been stigma. I have heard this notion many times before becoming a therapist and many times since. There have been many books and scholarly articles written about this potential stigma that African Americans have around the topic of mental health.
I am willing to challenge this idea. What!? Yes, I am willing to say “Hold on for a minute.” Let’s take another look at this “stigma” of mental health. Is it really a stigma or is it something else?
I believe it has less to do with stigma and more to do with the following:
- Lack of understanding on what mental health or therapy is and/or consists of
- Cultural habits of using other resources for our emotional healing
- The hideous history of psychiatry and other systems that have been damaging to us as an ethnic group
Therefore, what we are labeling as “stigma” maybe more. How about we consider another angle as to why Black people do not seek mental health treatment.
To be honest, mental health is not “sexy.” It does not jump out to most people as something you got to try once in life. Think about this, if someone gave you the options of going talk to a stranger about your deepest pain or having a couple cocktails or glasses of wine to feel better, which would you choose? I assume if you drink you will head to the nearest happy hour.
What mental health professionals can do
In order to reduce the stigma of mental health, we must make it more “digestible” or easier to understand. Also, we definitely need to do it differently than we were trained. Let’s be honest, people. Psychology and psychotherapy were built on models that do not fit well with African Americans. Here are a few things I have done to reach Black people in a beneficial way.
- Story tell: This could be some self-disclosure or telling stories about others you may know — no names of course.
- Psycho-education: helping people understand their condition in a helpful manner.
- Build a rapport and give room for things to happen.
- Learn the context of the client(s). This requires asking clarifying questions.
Also, many Black folks have different attributes that fits them and their background. For instance, the language (dialect) spoken by someone in Compton, California, will be slightly different from some from the Tristate area of the East Coast or the Southside of Chicago.
Mental health is an important piece of empowering the community. Collectively, we have been through so many traumas. We have to be able to access professional help that is constructive for the context in which we exist in.
Is there stigma around mental health in the African American Community? Yes. However, we should not stop there. I believe there is more to it than the notions of fear and mistrust of mental health.
As a collective we must start to advance our understanding of the condition. Just labeling something as “stigma” and leaving that as a standalone excuse does not help us find a solution for this problem.