Mental Health in the African American Community: Talk or Taboo?

Where does Baltimore Stand in Addressing this National Issue?

by: Jennifer Wright Special to the AFRO
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A person’s mental well-being is just as important to their health as their physical and spiritual well-being, and African-Americans may be more likely to face mental illness.

A study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health revealed that African-Americans are up to 20 percent more susceptible to mental illness. So why do so many African-Americans neglect their mental health?  

One of the barriers to mental health treatment is the historical mistrust the Black community has of health professionals, and the misdiagnosis of mental illness is still more prevalent among African Americans. African American women who suffer physical symptoms related to mental health problems, particularly depression, often are treated for the physical ailment and never the mental problem, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Similarly, African American men are sometimes misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia when they may actually have a mood disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. The Atlanta Black Star reported in 2015 that PTSD has been on the rise in African-American communities due to the increase of racial violence nationwide and daily exposure to oppression in our neighborhoods.

Another barrier to care is the stigma and myths surrounding those with mental illness, especially in the Christian faith. Research has shown that many African Americans rely on faith and family during emotional distress, rather than seeking help from a mental health professional. This stigma often affects older members of the community, as the younger generation does not feel as embarrassed when seeking professional help.

In addition, many African-Americans lack health insurance which provides adequate mental health coverage. According to current statistics from countyhealthranking.org, which tracks health statistics nationwide, 13 percent of Marylanders under the age of 65 are uninsured. This number could increase if the American Healthcare Act (AHCA) is signed into law; the AHCA would give health insurance companies the right to increase premiums for enrollees needing mental health and addiction services.  

However, according to that database, services for mental health providers are abundant in Maryland, with 1 provider for every 490 residents; in contrast to the national average where there is only one primary care provider for every 1,130 residents. In Maryland, the lack of mental health resources is less an issue than the lack of health insurance access.

Increasing attention is being brought to mental health disparities within the African American community, with celebrities such as Kanye West and Kid Cudi publicly discussing their mental illnesses. African American pop culture has also brought a new awareness to the issue; for example, a recent episode of The Carmichael Show featured a character dealing with depression.

Those struggling and looking for help in Baltimore should call the city’s 24-hour mental help and substance abuse information and referral line at (410) 433-5175.

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