Mental Health Stigma Still Affecting African Americans

— Educator and life coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus said there’s something else that happens in the African American community that should warrant consideration when discussing the stigma of mental illness.

“In all aspects of life, the African American community has had to appear better than the average person just to be seen as good enough,” Taylor-Klaus said.

“African American families have long been conscious of a need to dress their kids a little nicer in public, to expect their kids to behave more respectfully in public, and to follow directions immediately,” Taylor-Klaus said.

“The implications for the adults when kids don’t behave has been a risk-factor — when an ‘uppity’ child acts out, an African American adult can get in serious, life-threatening trouble. It’s not reasonable — but it’s a reality of African American life in the United States,” she said.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness and some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, according to Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness.

Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events.

As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. According to Mental Health America, mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of:

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Strange thoughts (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance use

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:

  • Substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

For detailed information about mental illness and where assistance is provided visit, www.nami.org; www.mentalhealthamerica.net; or www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov.

Part 2 in this series will tackle the growing number of suicides among young African Americans, an alarming trend that experts say is the result of poverty, racism, and post-traumatic stress syndrome both from military service and domestic and social problems.