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Posted under: Opinion

4 Significant Mental Health Barriers That Prevent Black Communities From Treatment

We need to break the silence and subsequently break the chain of depression and internal oppression that’s persisted in our community for generations.

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In recent months, Black celebrities have been dominating the news cycle, bringing awareness to something that has been brushed aside for too long. From the recent suicide of NBC’s This is Us writer Jas Water, headlines of suicidal thoughts by Tamar Braxton and most recently, Kim Kardashian’s plea for compassion for the mental health of her husband, Kanye West, who is struggling with bipolar disorder, mental health is finally being brought into focus in the Black community, and it must be part of the Black lives matter (BLM) conversation. But when only 25% of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of the white community, it begs the question: Why has mental health been notoriously such a taboo topic for the Black community? And what can we be doing to eliminate these barriers?

A new report by the Mental Health Index reveals that Americans are continuing to struggle with mental health conditions, with 54% of participants reporting depression between Feb 3 and June 28 of this year. Suicidal thoughts can take hold when emotional or physical pain feels too overwhelming, with added feelings of hopeless and helpless. Suicide prevention, however, starts with providing empathy, support and access.

Black people are faced with significant barriers that prevent them from seeking treatment, including:


1. The Restraints of Shame

While the shame around mental illness does not discriminate against any one culture, it’s certainly amplified in Black communities by pervasive oppression as a result of systemic racism and discrimination. For years, Black people have been conditioned to having a “tough it out” attitude. From slavery to modern-day racism, the Black community has endured and survived. At the same time, the mental and emotional impact of “bearing through” mental health issues takes a serious toll on families and the community at large. The extraordinary amount of chronic stress that comes from bearing the burden also directly impacts physical health. The well-documented high rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity in the Black community are all tied to mental health issues and the resulting trauma, incarceration, abuse, substance use, etc., that also impacts young Black lives.

ACTION: Talk about the issue. By openly acknowledging the challenges of mental illness within our own families, church communities, and the culture as a whole, we give permission to others to speak openly on the topic. Through this, each of us can help to break through the stigma and change the legacy of suffering in silence. Reach out for help. This is not a situation that gets better on its own by toughing it out. Make a list of those in your life with whom you feel safe talking about the issue and talk to more than one person. Trust me when I say that people around you do want to help, but many don’t know how to recognize the signs or what to do. Having more than one advocate on your side is essential as you navigate some of the challenges you may face along the way. Culturally competent treatment options must be accessible to properly support Black communities.


2. Unequal Access and Disparities in the Healthcare System

In the African American community, mental health issues are often compounded by the psychological stress of systemic racism. Racial disparities are a persistent and troubling problem for African Americans in the healthcare system. They often receive a lower quality of care and experience worse outcomes as a result. And out of fear, those who are struggling still remain silent. In fact, Mental Health America reports that in 2018 alone, more than 50% of Black and African American adults with serious mental illness did not receive treatment.

ACTION: Keep an eye on those around you for signs they might be struggling and speak up. Is someone you know feeling depressed, crying frequently, agitated, angry or aggressive? Have you noticed they’re drinking more or using substances? Be mindful of thinly veiled pleas for help — casual mentions of feeling despair, thoughts of suicide or wishing they just didn’t wake up one day — and intervene. Reach out immediately to let them know you’re there for them and will assit them in getting the help they need.


3. Religious Perceptions of Mental Illness Steeped In Stigma

The faith sector is a well-known cornerstone of the Black community, yet most religious organizations don’t recognize mental illness as a disease. Sending a message that suicide is a sin and anyone who takes their own life “won’t go to heaven” holds people back from talking openly about problems within the community. And so, the silence continues.

ACTION: For church leaders and community members who do try to help, most are simply not equipped to provide what’s needed. Well-intentioned as they may be, they may lack the medical training to provide the level of care most people require, which may include medication as part of a comprehensive treatment program. Religious leaders, I urge you to start talking about mental illness and suicide over the pulpit, in your Bible studies and youth groups. Educate yourself on the statistics and about what’s happening in the communities you serve. When you acknowledge the pain and hurt felt across families and the community as a leader, when you start the conversation, it lifts the heavy cloak of silence that weighs down our communities.


4. Changing Attitudes About Mental Health

The Black community is no different than any other community in that everyone wants to live a healthy life: physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. To progress on this issue, we must address the underlying causes and take a stand. While this requires some systematic changes in the healthcare system, it also requires us to do our part. We must elevate and prioritize our own mental and emotional wellbeing so we can tackle issues like systemic racism as a strong and holistically healthy community.

We need to break the silence and subsequently break the chain of depression and internal oppression that’s persisted in our community for generations. By making mental health part of the BLM conversation, we empower a community of people who are so deeply struggling to have these conversations openly and honestly, without fear of judgement. And once that can happen, we all move forward.

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Marlon Rollins is the Chief Executive Officer at Laguna Treatment Hospital, an American Addiction Centers facility. Rollins has more than 15 years of experience in behavioral healthcare. He is a member of the Steering Committee for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

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