By: Trust Oliver
The words “mental health” can mean a variety of things to different people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Yet, in the Black community, the state of well-being to cope with normal life stressors is determined by our forefathers who endured far worse pain without ever addressing their issues. We, as Black people, are prone to believe that having a mental illness is a personal weakness or a plague from above. Besides our own belief system, there is an everyday struggle with racism (Williams, 2017). Our belief mixed with generational mistrust in the medical system hinders those with mental health illnesses from reaching out for help. Instead of seeking help before there is a problem, we deal with the repercussions of a mental breakdown because the stigma is too powerful to be broken. It is time we start addressing the elephant in the room.
Blacks face poverty, homelessness, less access to educational, nutritional, and healthcare resources, in addition to circumstantial diseases,and for many, high parental expectations. To voice that we are “tired” and “cannot do this anymore” feels like a betrayal to our ancestors who dealt with worse circumstances. We succumb to the pattern that we should be able to handle whatever is thrown our way. We put on our big girl/boy pants and keep it moving (McLean, 2021). If it is not our ancestors, it is our religion. “Many in the Black community are reluctant to go to therapy or counseling, preferring religion as their primary coping strategy” (Souter, 2020). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), religion can help with stress tolerance by connecting people with others who have similar beliefs. The key component is the religious view. Depending on the mental health illness, religious beliefs can have positive or negative effect. Amplified if one’s perception of God is loving, kind and supportive versus if God is punitive, threatening, or unreliable (Rettner, 2015). For example- As supportive, mental health illness makes you stronger and produces a powerful testimony. On the other hand, as punitive, mental health illness is a consequence of one’s or association’s actions. Given the importance of religion in the Black community, Black churches are crucial in raising awareness and destigmatizing mental illness.
Outside of religion, the Black community rely on personal resources and the health care system. If we are brave enough to seek outside help for our mental illness, we must make sure we go to trusted sources. Since the Antebellum period, there has been an ongoing mistrust of the health care system. The unethical use of Black bodies for dissections, medical exams, and experiments for the advancement of the healthcare system resulted in the use of alternative and/or self-medication. It was safer gambling one’s life with local medicine then entrusting oneself to a physician and never return to loved ones. With mainstream exposure of racism towards the Black community, having a culturally competent  clinician and counselor is important so we can truly relax and genuinely express ourselves (Souter, 2020). However, it can be challenging to find a Black mental health specialist. Data shows that only 4% of social workers and 2% of psychiatrists and psychologists are Black (Souter, 2020). The good news is that more resources addressing mental health in Black communities are emerging. Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA) is a non-profit organization that aims to support and provide resources for the Black community to prioritize mental health. Psychology Today, a media organization, connects people with mental health specialists. Therapy for Black Men and Therapy for Black Girls are both nonprofit organizations focused on helping Black men and women speak about issues and access help. There are social media apps like Calm and Headspace that address a comprehensive list of mental health needs (Forbes, 2021). All organizations and apps are easily accessible online and/or on one’s phone to obtain help from someone who understands the plight.
Even with user-friendly mental health resources for the Black community, normalizing the conversation of seeking help is a crucial first step needed to eradicate the stigma. Over the years, there have been mixed reactions to celebrities raising awareness about their personal mental health. When Kanye West and Terrance Howard were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was met with mockery from the Black community. In contrast, Michelle Obama, Gabrielle Union, Jay-Z, Serena Williams, and Kerry Washington spoke about their “socially accepted” and “widely discussed” mental health issues openly, and were praised (White, 2019). To aid in the discussion, entertainment shows like A Million Little Things, This Is Us, She’s Gotta Have It, and Giants have been helping to normalize the process of seeking help while navigating stigma from family and society (The Mighty, 2018). There has even been talk of changing the educational system to destigmatize mental health (White, 2019).For those no longer in primary or secondary school, there are many podcasts that Black males and females can listen to that aide in processing and coping with mental issues (Fireflies Unite, 2019). Collectively, celebrities, shows, and podcasts have done a great job in working to normalize the conversation on Black mental health.
Now that we have addressed the elephant in the room, here are the steps we can take to instill the importance of Black mental health. 1) Speaking up by sharing our stories with others. 2) Seeking help even if we feel we do not need it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 3) Working alongside other socially and culturally diverse medical professionals 4) Becoming aware of the various backgrounds that encompass our diverse patients. Together, we can create safe spaces for Black people to obtain help and eliminate the stigma of mental health disorders in the Black community.
 See https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/healthcare/347780-black-americans-dont-have-trust-in-our-healthcare-system  See https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/  See https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/with-a-history-of-abuse-in-american-medicine-black-patients-struggle-for-equal-access  The ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from various cultures, beliefs, customs, and behaviors