Every July is Minority Mental Health Month. The observance this year feels different. It’s more urgent, more front of mind.
As a nation, we are going through a considerable and much-needed change. Hundreds of thousands are marching against systemic racism and the inexcusable injustice that continues against the Black community. Hard conversations are finally happening – in city governments, at dinner tables, and on street corners.
Racial discrimination across generations has done more than bring us to a pivotal moment in this country. It has taken a toll on our psyche – especially for those in the Black community.
Trauma in the Black Community
Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., director of Kent State University’s Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans and author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear, wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
“Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening incident. The unrelenting series of events Black Americans have witnessed before and after the killing of George Floyd is racial trauma.
“At its core, racial trauma is racism … Most Black Americans, regardless of education, socioeconomic status, or job title, experience one or more forms of racism every day. But with the placement of a knee on George Floyd’s neck, racism shifted from a chronic stressor to a trauma trigger.”
Trauma can lead to a number of mental health conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression.
This trauma is happening during a time when the community is already suffering. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 21 million Americans have filed for unemployment. According to CNBC, the black unemployment rate “rose slightly in May, despite a decline of nearly two percentage points for white workers.”
Policies from the past such as the National Housing Act of 1934, also known as redlining, resulted in racial segregation of communities by federal and local governments. Redlining created conditions where access to job opportunities are limited for many in these segregated black communities.
As a result, Black people predominantly hold the essential jobs that place them at the front lines of the current pandemic. amfAR, the Foundation for Aids Research, reports that 22% of U.S. counties are disproportionately black, and those counties account for 52% of COVID-19 cases and 58% of COVID-19 deaths.
A global pandemic forcing people into isolation, record joblessness, reduced access to healthcare, and the public tragedy of George Floyd’s murder have added increased pressure on Black adults, many of whom are also parents with limited access to childcare.
The week after George Floyd’s murder, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau showed Black adults have been more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety than other groups.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety can be severe and can even lead to death. Those suffering from these conditions often require medical attention in order to get control of their symptoms and, subsequently, their lives. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that only approximately one in three Black adults who need mental healthcare receives it.
There are many barriers to mental healthcare. Access to mental healthcare providers is not evenly distributed across the nation with rural and low-income areas among the most underserved. Some barriers are economic with the cost of healthcare exceeding a family’s existing financial obligations or insurance plans. Others are social-demographic, such as the stigma of mental health in the Black community.
Minority Mental Health Stigma Barriers
Stigma remains a problem in mental health regardless of race, but it is especially pronounced in the Black community. However, in recent years progress has been made towards helping the black community end the stigma.
Dr. Rheeda Walker, a University of Houston professor, wrote a book called The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal System, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness, and Get the Help You Deserve.
“I wanted to shift the conversation about mental health and the African American community and how we talk about it because there’s so much stigma,” Dr. Walker told Good Morning America. “There’s so much resistance to the conversation that I felt like we just needed to turn that shift completely around.”
In her book, Dr. Walker addresses the refrain so common in the Black community: “all you have to do is pray about it.” While Dr. Walker shares religious insights and even Bible scriptures in her book, she stressed to GMA that sometimes people need additional avenues of help.
“Praying is great, but by all means, if you feel like you need help, please do more than pray,” she said.
On her Instagram and YouTube accounts, Dr. Walker shares tips for coping, including being patient with yourself, connecting with family and friends, limiting TV news consumption, and simply focusing on what you can do right now.
Combatting Mental Health Stigma
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has made several suggestions for overcoming stigma in the Black community, including:
- Start the Conversation. It may feel awkward but ask about your loved ones’ mental health – especially during this turbulent time.
- Show Compassion. Listen during the conversation and let them know they are being heard.
- Save the Judgement. The quickest way to shut down the conversation is by judging someone who is suffering. Try your best to be supportive and consider the language you are using to communicate.
Most importantly, if you are struggling with your own mental health or want to find help for a loved one, don’t hesitate to reach out. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America shares a list of resources for the Black community on its website.
For more information on Minority Mental Health Month, read our previous blog post “Why We Need to Talk Openly About Stigma & Minority Mental Health.”