It is common to hear comments such as “That’s crazy talk!” or “Girl, you’re crazy!” in casual conversations among Black people. While often used in a joking fashion, the reference to mental health is a serious topic, especially in Black communities where mental health is often considered off limits. Those who dare broach the subject are frequently greeted with perplexed, cynical, and even outright hostile looks from others. These responses result from several factors, ranging from stigma to misinformation. Despite these challenges, we must directly address the problem of mental health, especially in Black communities.
Mental illness in African American communities is a real and ongoing crisis. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Black children between 5-12 are twice as likely to die by suicide as white children of the same age. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, African Americans accounted for 6.6 percent of suicides in 2017. In 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services found that Black men are four times more likely to die by suicide than Black women. The shocking suicide of iconic legendary Soul Train host Don Cornelius in 2012 was one example of a seemingly successful and highly accomplished Black man who struggled with mental illness. Many were unaware that Cornelius suffered from severe depression and anxiety, and his death sent shock waves throughout the Black community.
One significant outcome of this tragedy was the beginning of a dialogue on mental health that we must continue to have in Black communities. Black health experts have long warned about the mental health crisis afflicting Black communities. Unfortunately, many people have dismissed its impact and deadly effects due to the false perception that Black Americans are naturally “strong” and resolute. Some have also inaccurately suggested that this dilemma primarily affects other ethnic groups. All of these perceptions are dangerously misguided.
Poverty, prejudice, systemic and systematic discrimination, and other forms of individual and societal indignities all contribute to the high rates of mental health issues in Black communities. Yet the issue is often overlooked — or even hidden.
For some Black people, admitting and confronting the fact that they suffer from mental illness makes them feel dysfunctional in some way. Some people believe that religion is a cure for mental illness, and they resist medical treatment in favor of prayer and spiritual counseling. Others subscribe to the dictum “keep your personal business your personal business,” which leads to the internalization of problems rather than a resolution. In turn, it has devastating consequences. An untreated diagnosis, over time, can cause mental and physical deterioration of a person’s health.
The cold, hard truth is that mental illness is a disease that can be potentially debilitating and must be diagnosed and dealt with aggressively. Diagnosing the problem and deconstructing the stigma, however, are only part of the solution. The real challenge is providing access to a wide range of resources to help address the mental health crisis in Black and Brown communities.
Providing multiple resources for Black people, especially those in lower income communities, will help address this issue. Providing affordable access to counseling centers and other related forms of therapy is an important starting place for responding to the mental health crisis. Given the increasing advancements of technology, more people have access to online therapy, and therapists and clients can speak to each other either face to face or through audio. This affords the patient the option to discuss their issues and concerns from the privacy of their homes, thus eliminating travel to a medical facility.
Partnerships with faith-based groups such as churches and mosques are also vital to addressing the issue of mental illness. Religious leaders need to be further equipped with the tools needed to support congregants who are suffering from mental health issues.
Black people who suffer from mental illness must confront this fact. While it may be difficult, seeking help is the first step to healing.
*For those who are suffering from depression or mental illness, the Samaritans Crisis Hotline – 1-(877)-870-4673 and National Alliance Mental Illness – 1-(800)-370-9085 are two beneficial resources.
About the Author
Elwood Watson, PhD is a professor, author, columnist and public speaker who enjoys pondering world events and mixing it up with friends and the occasional stranger. He has written for a variety of publications, including Diverse Education, Medium.com, the Good Men Project, Salon, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications.