May Is Mental Health Awareness Month: Wake Up Call for the Diaspora

Since 1949 May has been dubbed Mental Health Month in America.  Its sole purpose is to raise awareness of mental health conditions and illnesses for all Americans.  However, I am dedicating the following to address Mental Health in Black and Brown American communities.

Certainly this is not a topic most are comfortable discussing.  And I would dare say Mental Health throughout the African Diaspora is a taboo topic.  In my humble view, we are simply too afraid to broach the topic because it carries so many stigmas with it.  Especially if you are the person suffering from an identifiable mental illness.  In many cases, however, there is a family member, friend, co-worker or acquaintance known to have such problems.  But still we will not talk about it in the open.

Consider the following from the Black Mental Health Alliance:

  • Nearly one in five Americans suffer from some kind of mental disorder, which can be successfully treated.
  • Less than half of African American adults with mental illness seek treatment for mental health problems, and less than one third of their children receive treatment.
  • Black Americans make up about forty percent of the homeless population, the majority suffering from mental illness are self medicating to treat mental illness.
  • Seven percent of Black American men will develop Depression during their lifetime. This is likely to be an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services.
  • Stigma and difficulty paying for care keeps millions of Americans from treatments that have proven successful.

More  Statistics from the U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health:

  • Poverty level affects mental health status. African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are 3 times more likely to report psychological distress.
  • African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites.
  • Non-Hispanic Whites are more than twice as likely to receive antidepressant prescription treatments as are Non-Hispanic Blacks.
  • The death rate from suicide for African American men was almost six times that for African American women, in 2008.
  • However, the suicide rate for African Americans is generally lower than that of the Non-Hispanic White population.
  • A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.

A few months ago I had an online discussion with Dr. Ural Heywood Hill, Jr. founder and chair of H.O.T.E.P. (Healing Ourselves Through Excellence and Preparation) and owner of Hill & Associates, and this is what he said about mental health in the Black American community:

“The recent untimely deaths of celebrities’ Don Cornelius and Whitney Houston could begin an in-depth conversation on African American Community Mental Health. African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though this may at times be necessary. After working on campaigns at HBCU’s (Historic Colleges and Universities) to reduce the stigma of mental health service delivery, I have seen the fear and avoidance of the use of professional practices in treating clinical disorders and substance abuse addictions. Cultural biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African Americans from accessing care due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and cultural insensitivity.

Only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American. Black therapists are breaking through some of the fears and apprehensions that African Americans may have about therapy by writing books and providing services that work and are sculpted in the nomenclature and context of presenting problems. As a private practitioner, I would encourage Black college students majoring in the helping relationship fields to pursue licensure in any one of the mental health disciplines and to prepare themselves for educating their communities about how counseling and psychological services can help heal individuals and families. “Across a recent 15 year span suicide rates increased 233 percent among African Americans aged 10-14 compared with 120 percent among Caucasian Americans in the same age group across the same span of time” (National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The need for professional counseling and therapeutic services in the Black community is tremendous. We must be prepared to educate as we provide services as well as understand the business side of mental health service delivery. A new practitioner would be wise to get an education on the intricacies of managed care, which will determine the effectiveness of their practices. My hope is that we are able to train more therapists and provide more opportunities for the average person in the Black community to access mental health services.”

I agree with his overall assessments about the need for professional counseling and therapeutic services.  Considering the overall history of oppression, slavery and Jim Crow in America as it relates to people of African descent, and now the extraordinary burdens immigrants carry, it is not surprising that mental health issues are on the rise in the Black American and Brown communities.

There is an opportunity for us all to take care of our mental health and be aware of the mental health of others in our communities.  Seek help when needed and certainly do not be afraid to suggest the same to those you know. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so let us all be aware and do something about it before it is too late.

About the Author

- a Family Man, self-described Chef, Public Intellectual, Social and Cultural Critic, Writer, Global Citizen, Technology Aficionado, Political Junkie and all around Thought Provoking Trouble Maker. What say YE?!!! Follow @DadisiSPEAKS and subscribe to me at facebook.com/dadisi.speaks

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