The subject of mental illness within the Black community is nothing new; however, it’s not a subject that is openly discussed around the kitchen table.
For years, research studies and psychologists have concluded that individuals who identify as Black or African American have to confront internal struggles if they desire to receive mental health treatment. Obtaining any form of therapy would involve the person acknowledging that they have a mental illness. Many forego treatment or therapy because it solidifies that they have a problem. Acknowledgment is an internal struggle for an individual, according to the data presented by Mental Health America includes a study conducted by Ward, Willshire, Detry, & Brown, (2013) which discovered that the research study participants did not openly acknowledge their psychological issues.
It is no secret that within the Black community that mental health comes with the stigma, shame, and judgment. They are the internal struggles that cause individuals to contemplate whether they should receive therapy or not.
Dr. Monnica Williams wrote an article about African Americans avoidance of psychotherapy that includes research findings from Alvidrez, Snowden, & Kaiser regarding the stigma associated with black mental health which says,
I believe that the old African American proverb “what happens in this house, stays in this house” is related to the refusal of treatment because the individuals do not want to bring any shame to their family’s reputation.
The old proverb has become the attitude of many Black families which hinders people from receiving treatment. According to Dr. Williams’ research findings, “talking about problems with an outsider (i.e., therapist) may be viewed as airing one’s ‘dirty laundry,'” (Why African Americans Avoid Psychotherapy, 2011). Individuals who have a mental illness and decide to receive treatment experience judgment from peers who have also have a mental illness. Having a peer or confidant who shares the same experiences; one may consider that person as an ally. However, that is not always the case; black individuals who suffer severely with mental illness hold negative attitudes towards other people who receive mental health treatment (Williams, 2011).
Other factors play a significant role as to why Blacks evade therapy, but it’s important to highlight the internal struggles that we experience.
So what measures can we take to move forward? How can we as a community remove the stigma, shame, and judgment from mental health and receive treatment?
- The first step is acceptance and acknowledgment within the community. This is an issue that can no longer be denied, avoided, or viewed as something that we can just get over. If we practice acceptance and acknowledgment within the community, more individuals will seek therapy. Conversing about mental illness within a non-judgmental zone will encourage individuals to be open about their experiences. The stigma may decrease if we support the utilization of mental health facilities such as local community service boards which provide psychiatric evaluations and medication management, provide support for loved ones who are mentally ill, and advocate for therapy. Dr. Williams stated, “By gaining familial support the client may gain peace of mind as well as lose the fear of being outcast or stigmatized” (Why African Americans Avoid Psychotherapy, 2011).
- Second, educational materials will assist in demystifying the subject by helping an individual understand their symptoms and find practical ways to handle or cope with their illness. Black actors and writers such as Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, and Jenifer Lewis are changing the narrative of mental health in media by openly discussing and introducing the topic within web series, prime-time television shows, and books. Receiving treatment is not an act of weakness but an act of strength and boldness, if one defies the odds how many more will follow?
- Black & African American Communities and Mental Health. (2017, April 03). Retrieved March 22, 2018, from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/african-american-mental-health
- Williams, M. T., Dr. (n.d.). Why African Americans Avoid Psychotherapy. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201111/why-african-americans-avoid-psychotherapy
- Ward, E. C., Wiltshire, J. C., Detry, M. A., & Brown, R. L. (2013). African American men and women’s attitude toward mental illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors. Nursing Research, 62(3), 185-194. doi:10.1097/NNR.0b013e31827bf533
- Alvidrez, J., Snowden, L. R., and Kaiser, D. M. (2008). The Experience of Stigma among Black Mental Health Consumers. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 19, 874-893.