The Village

  • The Black Community and Mental Illness: Let’s End the Stigma

    Jun 10, 2013. Written by Harry Colbert

    How are you doing – no, really, how are you doing?

    I ask the question as I type out this piece while looking out my window on a cold, gloomy day in June. It’s a bit depressing. At the same time, I hear a group of neighborhood kids laughing and playing. The weather doesn’t seem to be negatively affecting their moods.

    But for far too many of us, particularly in the African-American community, our moods are negatively affected by both external and internal factors. I know because I’m a sufferer, and it’s an ongoing struggle. But the biggest struggle is talking about mental health without fear of being ostracized, pitied or labeled flat out crazy.

    Now understand, I haven’t been clinically diagnosed with depression or any other mental illness, but there’s probably a really good reason for this. It’s the same reason most go undiagnosed (and therefore untreated). The reason is, I haven’t seen a mental health care provider regarding my issues.

    Not surprising, since according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), culture 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 a lack of cultural understanding.

    As black men, we’re told to never show emotion as it’s perceived as a sign of weakness, therefore, many of us refuse to discuss or even acknowledge our mental state – and it’s killing us (Black men), literally. According to the same NAMI report, and a report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH) suicide among African-American men is four times more likely to occur than it is for African-American women. Suicide among African-American preteens and teens age 10-14 is up 233 percent over the past 15 years. Keep in mind; suicide among African Americans in general is 60 percent less likely to occur than it is for whites. But any preventable death is one too many – and these are preventable deaths.

    Of course depression isn’t the only mental illness affecting our people.

    Let’s take bipolar disorder, for example. While the rate of bipolar disorder is the same among African Americans as it is among other Americans, African Americans are less likely to receive a diagnosis and, therefore, treatment for this illness. Even with proper diagnosis, the stigma is such that many choose to ignore treatment and/or self medicate in the form of alcohol and non-prescribed drugs.

    I tend to use analogies a lot, so here’s my analogy regarding mental illness.

    For illnesses such as non-chronic depression, let’s compare it to someone with an ankle sprain. With the sprain, it’s momentarily devastating and sometimes debilitating, but within a period of days or weeks, with proper care, a person is back to feeling whole again and walking in normal stride.

    Now keep walking on that bad ankle and don’t care for it and the healing process is much longer. Try to ignore the pain and it could lead to a break. But with care, a full recovery is almost assured.

    There’s no stigma attached to having a sprain. No one says something is somehow wrong with a person because they injured themselves. The same way, there should be no stigma for those who deal with depression and other mental illnesses.

    For those with chronic mental illness, be it bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder or other illnesses; let’s look at it like someone with diabetes (another illness greatly affecting African Americans).

    Without proper care and management of diabetes, it can kill. But with care, a person can live a long, productive and positive life. Of course it’s no great joy to constantly stick one’s self and monitor one’s blood sugar and diet, but it’s a daily necessity to remain healthy. The same can be said for the treatments of the various mental diseases that afflict millions of African Americans – they may not be “fun,” but they can help to maintain a relatively healthy life.

    But as with a sprained ankle, there’s no stigma attached to diabetes. No one says stay away from him or her because that person has diabetes. The same needs to be true about those suffering from mental illness.

    Encourage people battling mental illness. Support them. Guide them to seek professional assistance. Let’s lose the stigma associated with those under psychiatric care. In fact, we should applaud them for getting the care they need.

    Also, understand someone doesn’t have to be in distress to seek out a mental wellness professional. The same way we go (or shall I say we should go) to a doctor for regular check-ups, it might be a good idea to do the same for our mental well being.

    It’s time for me to take my own advice and seek professional assistance for my brief, but serious bouts with depression.

    Hey, look, the sun is out. Day’s not so dreary after all.