The topic of mental health is often taboo in the Black community. Whether it be because of deep-rooted stigmas or simply lack of and/or access to knowledge, many Black Americans are suffering in silence.
Here are the facts:
- According to Mental Health America, adult Black Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than white adults.
- While Black Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide at all ages, Black American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers (9.8 percent v. 6.1 percent).
- In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black or African Americans ages 15 to 24, rtor.org reports.
Despite these stats, Black people are far less likely to seek care. In fact, a mere 25% of Black people seek mental health treatment when needed, compared to 40% of white people, according to McLean Hospital data. This disparity can be attributed to a number of factors, including unequal access to health care and the stigma of mental health within the Black community.
So, what do we do about it? Well, the first step is equipping ourselves with knowledge.
Keep scrolling to learn about mental health and mental illnesses, as well as resources and tips to help yourself and/or a loved one.
What Is Mental Health?
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The state of one’s mental health can affect how one thinks, feels, and acts. Individuals can experience mental health issues at any stage of their life. Genes, brain chemistry, life experiences like trauma and abuse, and family history can all contribute to one’s mental health.
Types of Mental Health Disorders & Warning Signs
The World Health Organization outlined several types of mental illnesses and some warning signs to look out for:
Also known as clinical depression or major depressive disorder, this is one of the most common types of mental illness. Depression, which is also classified as a mood disorder, interferes with day-to-day living and causes severe distress to those experiencing it. Some of these symptoms or "episodes" can happen every day, nearly every day, or at least for two weeks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slowed down
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, waking early in the morning, or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
For more information, visit NIMH's webpage on depression.
Everyone has anxiety. It's natural to feel worried about things like your finances or work performance, but for some people, their anxiety can last for years and inhibit them. Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry and fear capable of disrupting daily activities, including school, work, self-care, and relationships. There are many kinds of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, certain phobias, and more.
Warning signs vary by the specific disorder. For more information about the most common ones, visit NIMH's webpage on anxiety disorders.
Most people are aware of anorexia and bulimia due to some celebrities getting candid about their struggles with these well-known illnesses. You don't have to be a model or high-profile figure to get an eating disorder, though. Millions of Americans have abnormal eating patterns and an unhealthy fixation on their weight and body image, leading to serious or even fatal effects on their body.
Since every eating disorder has distinct characteristics and warning signs, check out NIMH's page on eating disorders for the full scope.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disease commonly associated with military veterans, but the reality is anybody can experience it. Those who go through a traumatic event in their life, whether it's a car accident, the loss of a loved one, or sexual assault -- they're at risk of developing this illness. People who have PTSD re-experience that specific trauma constantly, to the point where it interferes with daily living.
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams and difficulty sleeping
- Frightening thoughts
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Schizophrenia has been the subject of many misconceptions thanks to movies, TV shows, and other forms of media. This serious illness affects a person's behavior, emotions, and perception of reality. While symptoms vary from person to person, experts recommend those seek treatment after the first episode of psychosis, which includes confused speech, paranoia, strange or intense feelings, and other troubling symptoms.
- Unusual or illogical thoughts
- Abnormal body movements
- Trouble communicating thoughts or processing information
- Having trouble planning and sticking with activities, such as grocery shopping
- Having trouble anticipating and feeling pleasure in everyday life
- Talking in a dull voice and showing limited facial expression
- Avoiding social interaction or interacting in socially awkward ways
- Having trouble focusing or paying attention
- Having trouble anticipating and feeling pleasure in everyday life
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you believe you are experiencing symptoms, reach out to a loved one, a trusted friend, or contact a doctor. Work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that is right for you. With early and consistent treatment, whether that be medication, psychotherapy, or peer groups, it's possible to manage your mental health condition and live a meaningful and productive life.
For more information on specific treatment plans, visit findtreatment.gov.
How To Have A Conversation About Mental Health
Having a conversation about mental health does not have to be hard. In fact, talking about mental health is the first step in challenging mental health stigmas. Here are some general conversation tips, courtesy of Mental Health America, to help you get started:
- Let them know if you understand.
- Avoid being judgmental.
- Take them seriously.
- Make yourself available to talk again if needed.
- Don't turn what you've been told into gossip.
- If you don't understand, do some research and learn about what you've been told.
- Tell an adult if you have to.
For more tips, click HERE.
Mental Health Resources Catered To Black Americans
Here are some organizations and initiatives that provide resources to both Black people in need and aspiring Black mental health professionals.
The aim of Therapy For Black Girls is to destigmatize mental health and help Black females get access to the therapy they need. According to their website, the organization presents "mental health topics in a way that feels more accessible and relevant." This is mainly done through their podcast, which addresses everything from relationships and social perceptions to mental illnesses and the connection between mental and menstrual health.
BMHA provides a wide range of mental health services and resources for both professionals and clients. People can have access to national thought leaders and research. They also facilitate educational programming to Black people on healing and seeking additional help. The organization also connects Black people to hundreds of culturally competent therapists through the country amongst other services.
Black Men Heal aims to provide "mental health treatment, psycho-education, and community resources to men of color," their website reads. They said they've provided hundreds of free therapy sessions to those in need while reducing costs for therapy, addressing the stigma, and providing access to help.
Created by Taraji B. Henson in honor of her late father, the Boris L. Henson Foundation's vision is to "eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community," according to its website. Not only do they address and support mental health issues, but they also partner with national organizations to see their mission through.
This organization focuses on advancing "healing justice" for queer and trans people of color. Not only do they provide resources for them and access, but they also have resources for aspiring practitioners, such as webinars, training, and skill sharing.
BEAM focuses on promoting "social justice informed mental health literacy," which they define as "mental health education framed in the social-historical context of inequality that aids in the skills building, healing and liberation of communities." When they're not promoting changes to how professionals approach Black mental health, they're raising money to help promote Black-led wellness organizations.
Activist Rachel Cargle established this initiative to facilitate "opportunity and healing to communities of color, especially to black women and girls." Through the Loveland Therapy Fund, the money goes toward providing connecting clients to "high quality, culturally competent" professionals and therapists.
For more resources, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for an extensive list.
Mental Health Debunked
Myth: A person with a mental health condition has low intelligence.
Fact: Mental illnesses can affect anybody regardless of intelligence, income, or social status
Myth: People with mental health conditions are violent.
Fact: People with severe mental illnesses are actually more likely to face violent crime than the general population.
Myth: Mental health issues are the result of a character flaw or weakness.
Fact: A number of tangible factors can be attributed to mental health conditions including genes, brain chemistry, life experiences like trauma and abuse, and family history.
Myth: I can’t help a person experiencing mental health issues
Fact: Friends and family can be an important influence on those experiencing mental health issues and help lead them to the resources and treatment they need.
Myth: Therapy/self-help is a waste of time.
Fact: Effective treatment plans can vary depending on the individual. Medication, therapy, or a combination of both can help one manage their mental health condition.
Myth: People who have mental illnesses can never recover.
Fact: Recovery isn't the same as a cure when it comes to mental illness. It manifests as people being able to live a safe, meaningful life while managing their symptoms. In fact, up to 65% of people who have serious mental illnesses, like major depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia, experience partial to full recovery over time, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Myth: Why need therapy when you can just take medication?
Fact: While some people are able to manage their illness without therapy, others rely on it to address traumatic experiences and events that contribute to their symptoms. Even people who don't suffer from chronic mental illnesses visit a therapist.
Myth: People who have mental illnesses are crazy or insane.
Fact: Calling people with mental health issues "crazy" is inherently harmful. Not only does it perpetuate a longstanding stigma, but it also makes it harder for people to seek treatment.
Myth: Mental illnesses aren't preventable.
Fact: Anybody can develop a mental illness, but minimizing risk factors, such as exposure to trauma, is key. Though, some people's life circumstances and environment may make this more or less difficult. Experts say more focus on developing a young person's emotional well-being can help, as well.