Baltimore’s Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA), in conjunction with the American Psychiatric Association and Baltimore City Healthy Start, will conduct a day-long conference April 11 to spur awareness about mental health issues in the African-American community.

This conference, titled Black and Blue: The State of African American Mental Health, will be held at the Mt. Washington Conference Center in Baltimore, and will provide information about how to access mental health services, as well as how mental health professionals can better serve the African-American community.

African Americans are far less likely than Whites to report having seen a mental health provider, according to a December 2013 report by the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

According to a report released last February by the Maryland Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, Black Marylanders were also significantly less likely to report having ever been diagnosed with depression, compared to Whites (9.1 percent compared to 16.7 percent, respectively).

Some areas of the city, such as Cherry Hill, lack sufficient access to a mental health care provider, according to Crista Taylor, vice president of system development at Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the organization that oversees the fee-for-service mental health system in Baltimore City.

In addition, she said, a stigma around mental health issues in the Black community accounts more for the disparities in the utilization of mental health services than lack of access.

“I think there’s a stigma in general with mental illness, but, yes it is more prominent in the African-American community,” she said. “In general, people don’t want to be labeled as somebody who has a mental illness. There’s a negative stereotype associated with having a mental illness.”

Jan Desper, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance, echoed that concern, noting that the acceptance of mental health treatment faces many hurdles in the Black community.

Desper said there is a reluctance to discuss personal problems outside the family; in addition to a belief in self-reliance, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, and a dependence on a strong tradition of spirituality that emphasizes an exclusive reliance on prayer.

Desper also said there is deep skepticism among Blacks toward health care workers, citing the Tuskegee syphilis 40-year experiment from 1932 to 1972 as “a perfect example” of maltreatment of Blacks in the name of research. During that period, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men in spite of a possible penicillin cure. The test subjects infected with syphillis, were not treated for the sexually transmitted disease but instead were lead to believe they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

“There are issues, historically, around looking at how people have come into the African-American community and have . . . misrepresented the relationship to research and that kind of thing,” she said. “But then that gives persons in the African-American community pause and fear that what’s being represented is really not what’s being represented.”

To overcome African American reluctance to embrace mental health treatment, Taylor and Desper said, the Black and Blue conference will stress the importance of cultural sensitivity and competence for mental health professionals.

“It’s important for cities that have large communities of color to work towards . . . building an environment of clinicians that understand the culture of the people that they’re working with,” Desper said. “That is not to say that you have to look like me to provide therapy to me . . . if you don’t have the same experience, then my hope is that you reach out in some way to gain that experience…either through dealing with this population or you have received training in this area.”