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Strength over Silence: Improving Minority Mental Health

Strength over Silence: Improving Minority Mental Health

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

“Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender or identity.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Shining a light on minority mental health is extremely important, as the stigma associated with mental illness is particularly concerning.

That’s why NAMI created an outstanding three-part docuseries on minorities and mental health. The three vignettes, each less than 10 minutes in length, share the stories of three individuals working to change perspectives, improve access to mental healthcare and reduce stigma in their minority communities.

“Through candid and courageous stories of lived experience, these mental health champions share their journeys of resiliency and recovery,” wrote NAMI about the people featured in the docuseries.

These champions are changing the way mental health is discussed and treated in minority communities.

Their work can make a difference for a substantial number of people. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health’s website:

  • In the past year, nearly 1 in 10 American Indian or Alaska Native young adults had serious thoughts of suicide.
  • In the past year, 1 in 7 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander adults had a diagnosable mental illness.
  • Over 70% of Black/African American adolescents with a major depressive episode did not receive treatment for their condition.
  • Almost 25% of adolescents with a major depressive episode in the last year were Hispanic/Latino.

“Minorities are less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment for their mental illness, have less access to mental health services and often receive a poorer quality of mental health care,” the Office of Minority Health concluded.

One common barrier among minority communities is that talking about mental health – even within the confines of family – is considered taboo. Below are three stories from people not only battling mental illness, but who also dealt with family and/or community that discouraged them from sharing their battles.

 Using Mental Health Experiences to Fuel a Career

Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The ADAA states that Asian Americans avoid seeking treatment because “doing so would admit the existence of a mental health disorder, and in turn would bring shame to their family’s name.”

Kristina Wong, a third-generation Chinese American, knows this shame first-hand. Her mother suggested if she went to therapy, Wong would “never be able to get a job.”

“That made it clear that … it was that shameful to go about seeking help or even talking to someone about your problems,” Wong told Good Morning America.

Spotlight on a stage to signify comedian discussing Asian American mental health issuesHowever, she decided instead to use her mental health experiences to fuel her career. As a comedian and performance artist, she created a one-woman comedy show called “Wong Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In the show, Wong discussed and elaborated on the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women.

Wong said the reaction to her show has been eye-opening; many of her audience members share their depression and suicidal attempts after her show.

“I was just like, ‘where were you when I was in high school?’ Where were any of us? Why do we have to sit on our pain and try to save face?” Wong exclaimed.

Compartiendo Esperanza: NAMI’s Mental Health Program for Hispanic Population

Like their Asian-American counterparts, studies show that fewer than 1 in 11 Hispanic Americans contact mental health professionals when suffering from mental illness.

Mental health is an especially “taboo” topic among Hispanics, Luis Sandoval, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente told NBC News. “As a result, he sees a ‘silent epidemic’ that prevents many Latino families from seeking help.”

Latina women holding hands while participating in Compartienda Esperanza to increase mental health awareness in Latino communitiesFor Bertha Loaiza, removing mental health stigma and shame among Latinos is deeply personal. When she was three years old, her mother died by suicide by jumping from a bridge, while holding Bertha. However, Bertha did not remember it – she thought she and her mother were in a car accident. Her family didn’t correct her memory; she learned the truth about  what had actually occurred from a tape she found that contained a news story of the incident.

It’s this experience that motivates her to help other Latinos who may be suffering from depression or experiencing suicidal ideation. Loaiza now is a member of the board of directors of the “Survivors of Suicide Loss,” a California-based organization that runs 16 support groups and provides mental health training.

Similarly, NAMI has also created a program designed specifically for Latinos called Compartiendo Esperanza. The 90-minute, bilingual program was designed to “increase mental health awareness in Latino communities by sharing stories about recovery and exploring signs and symptoms of mental health conditions.”

A Suicide Attempt Leads to an App

“Years before I created The Safe Place app, the stigma surrounding mental health issues in my community, nearly killed me,” wrote Jasmin Pierre in an online article for Good Morning America.  “I’ve done a lot of work surrounding mental health over the last four years that includes all races, but I’ve also noticed the mental health stigma in my own community was still increasingly getting worse.”

Ms. Pierre became an activist to help others expected to just “be strong.” Diagnosed with clinical depression at age 20, she avoided treatment and suffered in silence for 6 years  until another suicide attempt led her to decide to get help; however,  when she decided to get help – it wasn’t just for her – she decided to get help for others as well.

This led to her creating “The Safe Place”, a black minority focused mental health app that includes information such as black mental health statistics, self-care tips, mental illness descriptions and self-assessment questions to name a few. It also discusses how outside issues – like police brutality and racism – has impacted the mental health of the black community.

You can find and download The Safe Place app for free on the Apple App Store.

Breaking the Stigma

One thing is clear about these stories: mental health stigma will not end by remaining silent. The brave souls that share their struggles may help save someone’s life.

“I fight stigma by saying that I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. Why can people say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor without fear of being judged, but this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health professionals?” Ysabel Garcia told NAMI.

To learn more ways to fight mental health stigma, visit NAMI’s website: https://www.nami.org/stigma. You can also read more on the GeneSight blog at https://genesight.com/blog/patient/why-we-need-to-talk-openly-about-stigma-minority-mental-health/ or https://genesight.com/blog/patient/fighting-stigma-misrepresentations-of-mental-illness-in-the-media/.

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