About 6.8 million African Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness, this number is larger than populations of Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia combined, according to Mental Health America.
In some communities, a mental illness is not often viewed as a treatable medical condition but, as a sign of weakness not to be discussed.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, records in 2015, indicate that 34 percent of Black Americans have a serious psychological distress among adults 18 years of age and older.
Amara Sturkey, is a 24-year-old, black female, mental health advocate who lives with bipolar disorder involving depression and anxiety.
Sturkey said she never learned how to cope with the death of her grandmother, which led to a suicidal attempt before her 23rd birthday.
Shortly after the incident, she went to a physiatrist which tracked her family history and found a history of mental illness.
According to the Epidemiologia E Psichiatria Sociale, black people with mental illness are more likely to seek help if their families are supportive and if a family member has experienced a positive personal experience of mental health care.
Sturkey said her family supported her in wanting to get additional help because she had family members who experienced great outcomes from counseling.
She also witnessed how refusing to get help has taken a toll on family members. Sturkey said family members should offer support and not outcast the person living with a mental illness.
“The White Man Illness”
Courtney Leak, is a black clinical psychiatrist at Winthrop University, who studies mental illness within the black community. She believes a stigma is placed on black mental health because it is not common for African Americans to ask for help.
We don’t go to the doctor as much as our majority counterparts. We don’t do a lot of outside things.
“Throughout history African Americans had to be incredibly strong so asking for help in general is not a thing they do,” Leak said. “We don’t go to the doctor as much as our majority counterparts. We don’t do a lot of outside things. For example, we ask grandma or our neighborhood what to do for this cold.”
Mental health treatment was never an option for African Americans because they did not have the opportunity to get help.
Leak said African Americans never went to therapy because mental health was often viewed as a white man’s illness.
“I think also there was a time these things weren’t always available to us so we had to make do. People do what they are used to doing,” said Leak. “If you look at past studies from the 1900s on mental health only rich white males were privileged to receive services.”
From One Generation to the Next
Cultural practices have influenced the way mental illness is addressed within a community, which is passed down to the next generation.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information reported in 2013, that older African American adults believed depression was a sign of weakness and lack of inner strength.
Leak said there is a huge gap between grandparents raising grandchildren who struggle to understand the concept of therapy.
“That generation is not going to go to therapy on their own usually,” said Leak. “Unless the child introduces them to family therapy because they are so used to handling things on their own, it wasn’t an option for them in the 50s, 60s and 70s. That wasn’t something they could do.”
You don’t have to have a degree to be a preacher all you have to say is that you have gotten the call from God
The church can also play a significant role in older African Americans lives because some tend to believe in seeking religious counsel to overcome their mental illness.
According to the National Library of Medicine, religious coping to deal with mental health issues is most prevalent in the African American community than in the non-white Hispanic communities.
Sturkey remembers others telling her that she did not need additional help because she should solemnly depend on her faith.
She said there is nothing wrong with consulting with your pastor but they can only provide limited information.
“You don’t have to have a degree to be a preacher all you have to say is that you have gotten the call from God,” Sturkey said. “In order to be a therapist, you must have a degree but, pastors will tell you what they think and not what they know because they don’t have the proper education behind it.”
Breaking the Stigma
In order to break the stigma on mental health, African American families must address there is a problem with their loved one.
Leak said black families should stop letting things be okay by ignoring the signs of an mental illness. She also said families should ask how they could help each other.
I think making African Americans feel that this is okay and you are not an outcast
“We never acknowledge it we may talk about it behind their backs or get on your phones but no one ever says this is not okay,” said Leak. “I think sometimes you need one person that is going to do something different by going to counseling and then rest of the family sees that changes it will at least sparks the interest to say this isn’t all bad.”
Sturkey said she sees all different types of people such as lawyers and doctors getting services while she waits for her psychologists.
“I think making African Americans feel that this is okay and you are not an outcast,” said Sturkey.
Since being diagnosed Sturkey started her own non-profit organization, TheSilentMe, to break the stigma on mental health and to raise awareness in the black community.
Leak said clinicians should work to break the stigma in the black community by being visible in the community and educating them about their options.
“Clinicians needs to do a better job in attending things black people go to. To say we are here,this is an option for you, and this is a safe place for you to land if you feel like you are falling,” said Leak. “There is responsibility on both sides as well as the health care situation needs to make it more available for all different types of people.”
The links below are mental health organizations whose goal is to provide families with free information on mental illness.
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