May 2007 - Blacks and Mental Health

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May is Mental Health Month, which opens the door for me to talk about a health problem that is all too often overlooked or brushed under the carpet in our community-mental illness.

Recently, I was watching a television comedy program in which one young lady questioned her girlfriend about her need to visit with a psychologist/therapist. To paraphrase her comment, she admonished her friend saying "Black people don't go to therapy, they go to church!!" While this may have garnered a laugh from the audience, I found the dialogue troubling–and not the least bit funny. The fact is, this type of ridicule is exactly what keeps so many of our brothers and sisters in needless mental crisis, when they could be helped by a qualified mental health professional.

This is especially important considering:

  • The prevalence of mental disorders is believed to be higher among African-Americans than among whites.
  • According to the 2001 Surgeon General's report on mental health, African-Americans with depression were less likely to receive treatment than whites (16 percent compared to 24 percent).1
  • Only 26 percent of African-Americans with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder received treatment for their disorder, compared with 39 percent of whites with a similar diagnosis.
  • Over the last twenty years, the suicide rate for African-American men age 15-19 increased 114%.2 While Black Americans experience less depression than their white counterparts, their depression is less likely to be treated and is usually rated as more severe.3

While I'm not certain how many Black people really believe there is something wrong with seeking treatment for mental illness, I do know that the literature is replete with reasons why Black people don't seek treatment for mental illness. Some of the reasons include the failure to recognize that mental illness is a treatable disorder; a strong stigma associated with mental health problems; cost and stigma associated with seeking treatment; cultural incompatibility between mental health professionals/facilities and minority clients.

It's time to speak up and encourage those who need mental health services to get the help they need. If not for themselves, then for the friends and families who love them. While prayer can often provide solace and peace of mind, sometimes its just not enough. In those instances, God has provided a helping hand for those who need it through trained mental health professionals. There is absolutely nothing wrong, shameful, or blasphemous about seeking treatment, just as you would for any health problem. And make no mistake about it, mental illnesses are health problems that can often be treated successfully. If you know of someone who needs help, but can't seem to find their way to a phone, offer to make the call on their behalf–or better yet, offer to go with them for the first visit. It can be a meaningful first step that can put them on their journey to wellness...

With you on your journey to wellness...
Dr. Mary S. Harris

Souls of Black Men: African-American Men Discuss Mental Health

1 2001 U. S. Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health

2 The myth About Black Men and Suicide, AOL Black Voices, Feb. 6, 2006

3 Prevalence and Distribution of Major Depression Disorder in African-Americans, Caribbean Blacks, and Non-Hispanic Whites. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2007; 64:305-315

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