NNPA The NNPA is taking a closer look at the stigma of mental illness in the African American community. This is the first in a series.
Historically, seeking psychotherapy has been difficult for African Americans, said Dr. Viola Drancoli, a licensed clinical psychologist who wrote a master thesis about the barriers to seeking mental health services in ethnic minority communities.
“It is not only a concept with European origin, but also a concept that does not fit the community-oriented, collective approach to healing and support that has been so helpful to this population,” Drancoli said.
“Instead of finding healing in coming together, the client is separated, often sitting in a one-on-one session with a professional. The idea of being focused on, analyzed, can be perceived as threatening,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says poverty level affects mental health status and African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.
Further, African Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic whites, and the death rate from suicide for African American men was more than four times greater than for African American women, in 2014.
A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, compared to 120 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
Yet, experts said even as the conversation around mental health has grown significantly with celebrities and others in the spotlight sharing their stories, most African Americans still refrain from seeking help.
“Unfortunately, among African Americans it remains taboo to talk about, and one reason is the fear of being labeled as crazy,” said Arron Muller, a licensed social worker.
“The intense fear of being judged has been a huge deterrent,” Muller said.
“In the African American community there is also an association that mental illness means weakness and the inability to handle your problems on your own or that anxiety or depressive symptoms should be addressed with praying and fasting,” he said.
Prayer and a relationship with God have their place in the full picture of health and wellness and a connection to God and leaning on a higher power does promote tremendous benefits for the brain and brain health, said Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neuro-therapist in Chicago.
Jackson founded Dr. J’s Holistic Health and Wellness at DrCCJ.com.
“While having the strength to work on your own problems is a good characteristic to have, not recognizing when to seek help can be detrimental to overall health,” Jackson said.
“Turning to our pastors was needed in the past, but as concerns have grown, more resources are available,” she said, noting also that many African Americans eventually visit hospital emergency rooms with complaints that are in fact mental health issues.
“Some hospitals give referrals to mental health practitioners, but without proper education and information shared, follow through is unlikely,” Jackson said.