Black Mental Health Matters

Submitted photo Dr. Dionne Hart

We must address the many stressors affecting our mental health

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time to amplify efforts to increase mental health education, awareness, and advocacy within minority communities.

This commemorative month, established in 2008, was created out of the efforts in part of the late Bebe Moore Campbell, author of the novel “72 Hour Hold” and the children’s book “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry.” This year’s theme is “You Are Not Alone.”

Now more than ever, we need to focus on connecting with each other and prioritizing self-care and mental health treatment within our community.

Why is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month important? In the past year, we have witnessed an uprising in response to the murders of Black women, men, and children and the disproportionate illnesses and deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic in People of Color.

Even while the COVID-19 vaccines now allow us to return to something close to our pre-pandemic lives, we face increased threats to our reproductive choices and civil rights, including the right to vote and to peaceful protest. The ongoing disparities and distress of trying to live while Black takes a toll on our physical and mental health.

As a result, we have seen an increase in substance use disorders and, particularly, suicide in our youth. Mental health has long been mischaracterized in our community as a sign of personal weakness and a lack of faith in God’s will. However, the take-home message of this article is: Black Mental Health Matters, and it is essential that we address the stressors impacting our mental health and causing suffering and loss of life.

This spring I received a phone call that my niece had overdosed. It was an unimaginable loss that still seems surreal. It was further complicated by the anticipated and actual responses from my religious Southern Baptist family.

We spent days carefully drafting an obituary to avoid any hint of an intent to end her life and chose speakers who would talk about her faith in God and not her struggles with personal demons. Balancing my desire to advocate for mental health awareness and using her death to urge others to seek treatment was complicated by the need to be a supportive sister and aunt. In the end, my family shared a written statement that emphasized the importance of mental health but separate from the obituary program.

Our struggle with her suicide was one that her closest relatives privately acknowledged but did not publicly share until unexpectedly one of the ministers admitted that he had once checked himself into a hotel with the intent of completing suicide. He shared how his mental health struggles were not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.

I exhaled so loudly I felt it could be heard over our tears. People became unburdened of shame or stigma.

In addition to a therapist’s couch, every church pew, dinner table, family Zoom call, and salon chair needs to be a safe place for anyone experiencing mental health symptoms to receive support within our community. This support is imperative because Black people are suffering and dying.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Blacks and Latinos saw the largest spike in overdose deaths. For Blacks, the increase was 50.3%. A majority of Black and Hispanic adults with mental health problems do not have access to treatment. Almost 90% of Black and Hispanic adults who have substance use disorders do not have effective care. Currently, only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10-14 has increased 233 percent. In 2019, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for African Americans ages 15-24.

Blacks also have lower rates of prescription medication utilization, outpatient treatment, and evidence-based therapy. One in four fatal encounters with police ends the life of an individual with untreated mental illness. Black people with mental health conditions, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.

These statistics show that you are not alone; as a community, our mental health conditions are underdiagnosed and undertreated. As a psychiatrist and as a Black woman, I urge all readers to practice good self-care and to encourage others to address individual and collective stressors impacting our mental health.

In short, Black Mental Health Matters.