Mental Health and its Stigma Within the Black Community

Lifestyle

Let’s have the conversation.

By: Marissa M. Elston, MS, MHC-P

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, serious mental health is defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with, or limits, one or more major life activities.”

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and the American Psychiatric Association, African American adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress. However, only one in three African American adults who need mental health care, receive it. So we ask ourselves, why the disparity?

Mental health and its relationship within the urban community

My name is Marissa and I am a mental health counselor. My practice resides within a community agency on the east side of Buffalo, New York.

I work with a wide array of individuals; however, I primarily serve an African American adult population.

In my clinical experience, I have encountered various factors commonly referred to as treatment barriers, which are the ability to successfully link treatment and maintain it. This reinforces the illness/treatment disconnection within the black community and the stigma and systematic poverty among them.

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Stigma and the guilt and shame that is commonly associated with mental health is a treatment obstacle.

Stigma interferes with one’s likelihood to initially seek help. And It is no secret that the black community does not place the same amount of importance on mental health like other racial and ethnic groups do.

Since conception, African Americans are taught to be strong willed and resilient and asking for help is perceived to be the opposite of that belief.

Have you ever heard of the infamous line, “Pray it away?” But what happens when the prayers and hymns are not working? And why is it deemed culturally acceptable to go to the doctors for a sprained ankle but not a “sprained brain?” Suffering is suffering. And it takes a lot of courage to ask for help and do your part to receive it.

Low socioeconomic status is especially prevalent within the community that I serve and unfortunately, negatively impacts the ability for individuals to maintain their linkage in treatment. Such barriers include: the lack of transportation, health insurance, basic needs, and more.

How can one afford treatment without health insurance? How can one attend counseling sessions without transportation? And how does one simply engage in treatment when they are unsure when their next meal will come or where they will lay their head down at night?

In line with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, self-fulfillment can only be achieved when physiological needs (food, water, shelter) are met and maintained.

The purpose of counseling is to reduce the intensity and frequency of symptoms to improve one’s overall quality of life. To put it simply, the purpose is to feel better; however, the African American community faces many challenges that not only manifest mental illness, but also interferes with the ability to obtain and maintain treatment.

Therapy can only be effective when the barriers stated above are addressed and alleviated. Until then, symptoms will continue to persist.

Fortunately, multi-culturally competent counselors like myself exist and are available to help address obstacles as well as overcome them.

Help is available:
Erie County Crisis Services (24hr hotline) – 716-834-3131
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

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