Black People and Mental Health: Transcending the Stigma
by Sharde Taylor, LPC-Intern, Supervised by Shelley Zavodney, LMFT-S, LPC-S
There is no denying that in recent years more and more Black people are bravely seeking out mental health services for themselves, but many of us remain reluctant or even adamant about not getting the help we need. Here are some of the factors and barriers that contribute to this long-standing issue:
The lack of trust between Black people and those in the medical and mental health fields is completely understandable and even heightened in this current political era. Given our lengthy history of oppression by judges, police officers, scientific researchers, educators, and others in positions of authority, it is not difficult to see why some may be leery of mental health providers. This very reason for not seeking help also happens to be exactly why we should. I have heard “S/he can’t understand my struggle,” “All they do is push pills and labels,” and “They don’t really care about me.”
In a field where only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are Black (AACMH), many Blacks feel like they will not be able to form a genuine connection with the majority of providers available. However, all mental health providers are not the same, no matter their race. There are plenty of culturally competent providers available. Finding the one who is right for you--whether Black or not-- is a worthwhile process with infinite benefits.
According to a 2015 publication from Pew Research, the majority of Black people in this country identify as being religious, and more than any other race, we are committed to that religion. We are more likely to attend weekly church service and pray regularly, so we are more inclined to confide in our trusted church leaders in times of need (Wormald). While this is a much better alternative to suppressing your negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, most pastors are not equipped to handle the array of issues and concerns of the people. Yes, we may leave the pastor’s office feeling a bit more encouraged, but scriptures and prayer are often not enough to tackle the complexities of depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, suicidal ideation, and especially LGBTQ concerns. This is why it is so important for pastors to use their platforms to increase awareness of mental issues, decreasing the stigma that comes along with getting professional help. “I’ve got Jesus for free” and “The Lord will provide” are both true, but recognize that the Lord has provided you with qualified, highly trained professionals to address your very real needs.
From African empires to the most egregious form of captivity to civil rights activism to this era of Black excellence that we are all striving for, we are proud of the strength we historically display as a people. Still, 400 years of trauma and hopelessness did not end when slavery was abolished. The effects of which are still felt among us today and should not be ignored any longer. On an individual level, we have a faulty perception of what it actually means to be strong. For someone who habitually depends on others, asking for handouts wherever s/he can, it takes strength to embrace personal responsibility and stand on your own two feet. For the many people who choose to deal with issues privately, almost never asking for help, it takes real strength to ask for and accept assistance from others, especially a stranger. The fear of vulnerability and exposure can act as strong repellents to letting someone else into your most intimate and private matters. I assure you, vulnerability is not a weakness. ‘Vulnerable’ is not a curse word. You can say it. You have permission to feel it. Silence, avoidance, and loneliness are not synonymous with strength; they are the antitheses.
The high levels of poverty in the Black community make it difficult to participate in therapy on a regular basis. When money is scare, mental health issues fall lowest on the list of priorities. Mortgage, car payments, child care, electricity, groceries are the more immediate needs, so therapy become a burden that we pacify with prayer a venting to loved ones. Did you know that many employers provide their employees with an assistance program (EAP) that assists them with problems that may impact job performance or general well-being? Your job’s EAP program can connect you with a selection of therapists, usually offering up to four to six sessions at no cost to you! Sometimes these EAP programs are not promoted, so do some exploring to find out if your employer offers an EAP. If s/he does not, you should know that many interns (newly licensed providers) are available at a much lower cost. If intern prices are still too steep, then you should also know that there are many practicum students in counseling practices vying for the chance to work with you at little to no cost. You have options.
FAMILY NORMS & JUDGEMENT
I could write an entire dissertation on this one, but I will spare you. Raise your hand if you have ever heard family and friends say epithets such as “He’s just special” or “She’s a lil touched”? What about “The boy is just bad as h***,” “She’s just a drunk,” or “He’s got some sugar in his tank”? Sound familiar to you? So often we use humor to cope. Other times, we fail to even recognize these struggles for what they are: cognitive disabilities, alcoholism, behavior disorders, gender dysphoria, homosexuality, etc. We are so used to trauma that we no longer see trauma, so we brush it off. The more that suffering family member hears such judgmental colloquialisms, the more s/he begins to accept them as truth. If we never take the time to educate ourselves on the signs, symptoms, and causes of these issues, the more harm we do to the very people we love the most in the world. Brushing your loved one off as crazy can keep him/her from ever realizing that “crazy” really is just anxiety or bipolar disorder and there are solutions to these diagnoses! Family secrets and unhealthy family habits can destroy the entire family system, impacting each branch of the tree. We can do ourselves a huge favor by educating each other on mental illness, fixing our rhetoric, and being open to change.
For those of us who are able to transcend the aforementioned barriers to seeking help, we are sometimes completely turned off to therapy after a bad or unproductive experience. The first time I went to see a counselor, it was through an EAP. I was given a list of providers, and I called around to find a woman who could counsel from a Christian perspective. What I got for four sessions was a woman I did not connect with. I felt like her weekly soap opera, like my challenges were her entertainment. She literally told me that my life should be a movie. While I agree that it would make a great film, I was disappointed that I came for help that I never received. No matter what situation I presented to her, she was always on my side, never challenging my perspective or contributions to the problem. If I wanted someone to be my “yes person” I already knew who I could call for that, so I never returned to finish the two sessions I had left. Because I was already in graduate school earning my masters in counseling, I knew that my experience with her was not indicative of the therapeutic process overall. Had I given up completely, I would have been cheating myself out of newfound insight, peace of mind, and the freedom that I deserved. We all have that teacher, doctor, mechanic, preacher, barber or hairstylist that we have great rapport with and who produces great results. The same holds true with mental health providers. Find the one who suits you; otherwise, therapy simply will not work. Read more about choosing the right therapists here at http://www.hopeandharmonytherapy.com/blog.
Get the help you need today.
www.hopeandharmonytherapy.com (Houston, TX)
Phone: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
National Institute of Mental Health
Phone Number: 301-443-4513
Toll Free Number: 1-866-615-6464
Fax Number: 301-443-4279
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Website URL: www.nimh.nih.go
“African American Community Mental Health FACT SHEET.” Www.namisa.org, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2009, www.namisa.org/uploads/5/0/7/8/5078292/africanamerican_mentalhealth_nami_factsheet_2009.pdf.
Wormald, Benjamin. “Religious Landscape Study.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, 11 May 2015, www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/racial-and-ethnic-composition/black/#.