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The Complicated History of Black Mental Health

While attitudes around mental health in the African American community are changing, a historical stigma against mental illness has kept many from keeping it real about their own issues and seeking out help.

It’s important to keep in mind the historical and cultural nuances that often help shape how people relate and deal with mental health problems in their own lives.

Mental Illness and Mental Toughness in the Black Community

Historically, Black people in America have been exposed to psychologically, economically, and physically damaging life experiences, which leave us more vulnerable to developing a mental health issue at some point in our lives. Black Americans have long prided themselves on being strong, independent, and resilient. A leftover coping mechanism from slavery and Jim Crow days, many Black people can feel like their issues of today are frivolous compared to previous generations. Our ancestors got through slavery, surely we can deal with a little bit of anxiety and depression, right? One study found that African Americans are more likely to believe they can cure mental illness on their own, seemingly keeping many from seeking professional help. Another study found Black people are 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems, but less likely to seek out help for those issues.

Crazy is a word thrown at others as an insult with reckless abandon. As a child, I grew up hearing about my uncle Charlie, the older brother my father never met. Story has it, he came back from World War II and drank himself to death. Today it’s likely uncle Charlie would have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but back then, no one knew about terms like that, and resources were even scarcer.

While stigma and knowledge around mental illness have evolved, access to services and providers who deal in psychology can still be tough to find. A minority health report conducted by Mental Health America asserts that socioeconomic disparities often experienced by Black Americans (such as race-based exclusion from education, health, and social and economic resources) typically spells out a higher risk for poor mental health.

A History of Medical Disparity

Additionally, many Black people in the US have developed a fear of doctors after years of mistreatment, experimentation, and discrimination by the American medical system. The Tuskegee experiment is one of the more well-known instances of experimentation on Black people. In 1932 the United States Public Health Service teamed up with Macon Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute to record the natural progression of syphilis in humans. Medical treatment was withheld from around 400 Black male participants even after penicillin started being used as a treatment for syphilis in 1943.

It is also widely known that the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” James Marion Sims, experimented on enslaved Black women, often without anesthesia, citing the incorrect idea that Black women did not experience pain the way white people do. Things were certainly different back when Sims was alive in the late 1800s, but unfortunately, these historical hypotheses and discriminations still exist. A 2016 study found that half of trainees surveyed held false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and whites. The same study found that Blacks are undertreated for pain management in comparison to whites.

Bridging the Gaps and Looking Forward

Reduced stigma in recent years has made it easier for some Black people to get the mental health help they need. Social media avenues like podcasts, short-form videos, and even apps, have provided an accessible way for people to educate themselves. Andrea Payne-Jones, a licensed mental health professional with her own private practice in Memphis Tennessee, can see how apps and podcasts, for instance, might be useful. “Mental health app and podcasts created by professionals, allow a place to gather resources, encouragement, and offer the permission to seek professional help to those who may otherwise be afraid or ashamed to,” she says. “They are a great start for many with the hope to segue into building healthier coping skills.”

Despite the fact that therapy is becoming more socially acceptable, Black people still need a lot of support in this area. Historically, the needs of Black Americans have been treated as afterthoughts or non-factors. According to a 2015 study by the American Psychology Association out of 100,000 psychologists working in America, only four percent are Black American (compared to 85 percent white). This gap in representation is a clear indicator of how far we still have to go in terms of inclusion in the world of psychiatry.


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