Roughly 6.8 million African Americans have a diagnosed mental illness – more than the populations of Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia combined - and according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, are 20 percent more likely to face mental health challenges than the population at large.
Any individual can experience a mental health care problem, but African Americans may face more significant mental health challenges due to lack of health access and other barriers. Compared to white adults, African Americans are only half as likely to use mental health services, and roughly 15 percent lack health insurance.
The implications of untreated mental illness can be significant. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability, and can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. If you or someone you know suffers from mental illness, getting early treatment can significantly improve your health and combat the trend of undertreatment in our community. Here are four things we can do to make mental health a priority.
1. Ditch the mental health stigmas. Many African Americans believe mild depression or anxiety is considered “crazy” in their social circles, which creates a reluctance to talk about mental illness, even among family. Only 30 percent of African Americans believe mental illness is a legitimate health issue, and 60 percent mistakenly see depression as a personal weakness. These misconceptions are dangerous. Just like diabetes or high blood pressure, mental illness is a real health problem that can be diagnosed and treated. Left unchecked, mental illness can have serious consequences.
2. Find a provider you trust. This can be difficult for African Americans looking for cultural solidarity. Less than two percent of American Psychological Association members are African American, which leads to a perceived cultural gap in treatment, but there are providers who are trained and available to help. A Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, also known as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, can do many of the same things as a psychiatrist, including diagnosing mental illness, prescribing medication and even serving as a therapist. A simple interview can help you decide whether a provider is culturally sensitive – and right for you.
3. Know the difference between physical and emotional symptoms. Many African Americans would rather be considered sick than crazy, and as a result, they are more inclined to talk about physical symptoms like headaches or digestive problems without addressing underlying causes like sadness or despair. Mental health begins with self-awareness and is contingent on the ability to talk candidly with a provider. Take stock in how you feel and make an appointment to discuss any red flags as soon as you notice them. Treating minor problems today will help avoid more serious problems down the road.
4. Break the silence. Mental illness affects one in five adults, yet we still have a hard time talking about it. This irony is especially relevant for African Americans, who are 20 percent more likely to experience mental illness. Sadly, many are just as inclined to disregard mental illness as they are to treat it. Talking openly about mental health issues is a critical first step in normalizing problems, and this begins at home, in church and around the neighborhood. Shedding mental health stigmas is a community effort, and it happens one conversation at a time.
Thanks to changing perceptions and wider care nets, African Americans are increasingly seeking treatment for mental illness, but we still have a long way to go. Let us strive to live in a world where treating mental illness is just as important as treating pneumonia or cancer. We need to work together to encourage a better understanding of mental health, and in the process, to embrace a culture of understanding and support for those who suffer. By identifying warning signs and seeking treatment, millions can improve their quality of life – and you can be one of them.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.