BY AMBER B. COURTNEY, Bethune-Cookman University
“Sometimes I feel good in my chest, but I can never get that to my head. Sometimes I feel good in my bed. Get up, and I don’t feel good no more. The streets say you don’t need meds, my momma says you just need prayer. I need what they give you at the dentist. I don’t want to feel no more.”
These are the lyrics from the song “I Don’t Want To Feel No More” sung by artist reggie. The lyrics paint a story of a Black man struggling while going through a depressive phase, as he is given unhelpful words of advice from those around him.
The artist is told to not pursue medication by his peers and to pray about it by his mother. Instead of seeking help, the man idealizes turning to drugs to self-medicate. This ideology of not confronting and seeking help for mental health issues is often seen throughout the African-American community.
There is an aura of discomfort surrounding issues related to the mind, things such as therapy, medication, and trauma. Why is this such a taboo topic in the Black community? Where does it come from and what can be done to improve it?
Growing up in a Black family, just like in any other culture, leads to different beliefs and societal norms. One of which is that showing any vulnerability or flaw is a sign of weakness and character deficiency. An article posted on Very Well Mind, a website focused on psychology and psychiatry, talks about the stigmas behind mental illness within the Black communities in the U.S.
According to the article, “In the 1990s, a public opinion poll found that 63 percent of African Americans believed depression was a personal weakness. Other studies have found that the Black community is more inclined to say that mental illness is associated with shame and embarrassment. Individuals and families in the Black community are also more likely to hide the illness.”
I sat down with 58-year-old Crystal and asked her about the stigma surrounding mental health in her era of growing up. “Years ago, any type of abnormal behavior — mental illness, abuse, sickness — black people’s culture was what ‘happens in the home stays in the home,’” she said.
Crystal, who has her bachelor’s degree in sociology, grew up in a household with six other siblings and an old-fashioned mother. Her family lived in a majority-Black neighborhood during the 1960s. “You’d better not tell anyone that someone in your household was depressed.”
We understand what the stigma of mental health is in the Black community, but where does it come from? Multiple sources hypothesize that Black people’s history of surviving prejudice, abuse, and mistreatment is an underlying cause of the sense of shame.
“Black people already had so much to deal with. Dealing with slavery and lack of self-worth, we just didn’t want to reveal anything that made us ‘fit into’ how we already were viewed,” Crystal said. “We didn’t want to validate anything that white people said about us, that we were less than them.”
A fear of being viewed as weak, messed up or not good enough is a common theme in the Black community. Not only have Black people faced discrimination in society and everyday life, but also in the medical field. A New York Times article found that “Put simply, people of color receive less care — and often worse care — than white Americans. Reasons include lower rates of health coverage; communication barriers; and racial stereotyping based on false beliefs.”
The article, titled “Bad Medicine: The Harm That Comes from Racism,” written by Austin Frakt, discusses the major gap between the quality of healthcare that African Americans tend to receive versus white people. “African-American patients tend to receive lower-quality health services,” stated Frakt.
This is important to note because if there is a mistrust of the medical system already, how is it possible to trust it to diagnose or treat someone who suffers from mental ailments? It is a possibility that instead of helping someone in need of psychiatric treatment, the health provider will give them a label to fit them into whatever bias the provider has towards a person of that race.
The “Very Well Min” article states, “Additionally, issues like systemic racism and the lack of culturally sensitive treatment by providers may also play a role in the way the Black community views mental illness and treatment. It is not normalized in the way that it should be. People often view it as a personal and/or moral defect. As a result, the mental health field is viewed along the same lines as the other systems that have caused substantial harm to Black people.”
Lastly, what about breaking the stigma? The negative beliefs about mental illness and those who have it, along with the mistrust of the healthcare system, leaves a lot of Black people not seeking treatment when they need it.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Health, Black adults are more likely than white adults to suffer from emotional stress and feelings of hopelessness, yet only one out of three of them are likely to seek help. What is the key to changing the negative stigma and getting more help to those who need it?
Two things need to change–one of which is the lack of education. As many of those in Black communities have a belief that mental ailments are defects and not just factors of health, coming up with ways to educate more people about what mental illness actually is and what causes it can change the way it is viewed. If people understood it better, they would be able to recognize that it is the same as any physical health problem, and therefore should be considered just as important and treatable.
Secondly, it is important for mental health providers to become more competent when it comes to African-American mental health. Every group of people has their own challenges to face, so Black people, their experiences, and their culture should be taken into consideration when it comes to addressing their mental health and helping them find solutions. If a mental health professional isn’t aware of those things, then how can they possibly help them?
Black people and mental health are two topics that have often not gone within the same sentence. In the Black community the bias and negative stigma that goes along with mental health and receiving help for it has gone on for decades, if not centuries. However, it is a new day and age, and a discussion needs to be had.
African Americans are more likely than white people to suffer from mental health crises, from depression and hopelessness, and addiction and trauma. Yet, somehow we are least likely to seek out the help we need because of fear of being ashamed or embarrassed.
Black people are as deserving of help as any other group of people. We deserve to not feel defeated, hopeless, or ashamed over something that we have no control over, over something that we can get help for. A peaceful mind leads to a peaceful individual, and we deserve peace. We always have. We always will.
If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health issues and you don’t know where to start, there are many sources online that provide information and resources to aid African Americans in need of a helping hand.