The stigma around mental illness is still very present in our society. Mental health disorders occur regardless of race, color, age, social status, identity, or gender. The World Health Organization (WHO) data indicates that one of four people will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. The young population is particularly vulnerable to mental health disorders, with suicide being the second leading cause of death among people age 15-29 worldwide.
Anyone can experience mental health problems. However, the African American community sometimes experiences more severe psychological distress due to other mental health-related challenges.
How Is Society Contributing to Mental Illness Stigma?
Society generally has stereotypes about mental illness. Many people with different mental health conditions report experiencing the stigma around their mental health. The stigma attached to mental well-being usually generates prejudices and discrimination that often lead to negative actions toward persons with mental illness.
Also, mental illness is often negatively presented in the media. Mass media reports and descriptions often link the mental illness to substance abuse and violence, portraying people with mental health problems as dangerous or criminal.
The stigma is one of the main challenges people of color encounter when struggling with mental health conditions. Mental health stigma makes people feel judged and prevents them from talking about their internal challenges.
The Stigma in the Black Community
African Americans, like other minorities, often get trapped into a cycle of despair and experience even worse mental health outcomes caused by stigma. Due to the stigma, the African American population with mental health disorders may have difficulties to find work, reach academic goals, be socially active, live in decent housing, and maintain positive relationships.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the adult African American population in the U.S. is 20 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress than adult Non-Hispanic Whites.
Their research also shows that suicide was the second leading cause of death among young African Americans 15 to 24 years old in 2017. The reports also show that minorities, in general, have less access to mental health services. Fewer than one-half of people with mental illness receive treatment. A lack of understanding of mental illness and the stigma prevent necessary actions in the field of mental health.
So, instead of seeking professional help, many African Americans with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions opt to bottle up their challenges and resort to self-medication and isolation from their community.
Mental Health Care Challenges
Different reasons prevent people of color from seeking treatment and receiving quality mental health care. Factors such as lack of information about mental illness, relying on the family, community, and faith, misdiagnosis and the wrong treatment, and bias and mistrust in mental health providers are among the most common reasons why people of color don’t seek help and receive treatment.
Lack of Information
Many people in the Black community are reluctant to acknowledge mental health problems and to talk about this topic. The lack of knowledge and understanding leads many to perceive mental illness as a sign of weakness. Also, many African Americans have difficulties recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and don’t know where to find help for their problems.
In addition, African Americans may be unwilling to discuss their mental health and seek support because of the stigma attached to such conditions. Research suggests that people of color believe that conditions such as anxiety and depression may be considered “crazy” in their community. They also don’t find discussions about mental illness with family and friends appropriate.
Family, Spirituality, and Community
Many people in the African American community rely on family, community, and spirituality for support rather than seeking professional mental health care. While relying on these circles of support is invaluable, sometimes professional help may be necessary too.
The Wrong Diagnosis and Treatment
Mental health misdiagnosis keeps people with mental illness from receiving the proper treatment and hinders their recovery. A lack of cultural competence by health professionals may lead to misdiagnosis and wrong treatment of mental health disorders. For example, a patient may describe the cramps and digestive problems when talking about depression. If a mental health provider is not culturally competent, these signals may go unrecognized.
Mental Health Provider Bias and Mistrust
Many African Americans in need experience conscious or unconscious bias from health providers which results in their reluctance to seek treatment and poorer quality of mental health care.
According to Mental Health America (MHA), 11% of African Americans had no health insurance in 2017. African Americans who live below poverty are three times more likely to report serious mental health conditions than those who live above poverty.
How to Fight Mental Illness Stigma?
In-person contact with people who have a mental illness is one of the best ways to challenge the stigma. Therefore, it is critical to encourage people with mental health disorders to talk about their challenges. Another important part of overcoming the stigma includes raising the awareness that no one is immune to mental illness. Only the understanding that mental illness can happen to everyone regardless of their color, race, identity, social status, or age can help remove the stigma from mental health.
Of course, changing deep-rooted attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors is not an easy task. However, the serious mental health burden associated with the stigma attached to minorities suggests that African Americans would benefit from discussing their mental health issues openly within their families, social circles and the wider community.
In spite of the progress achieved over the years, African Americans’ mental health is still affected by negative stereotypes and prejudices. Therefore, to improve the mental health of the Black community, these issues need to be addressed as well.