Black Mental Health: This is Not a “White People” Issue

Mental health is just as important as physical health. However, the Black community at large doesn’t see it that way, and there are numerous factors contributing to this. 

Suicide among Black youth has been increasing at an alarming rate with Black male adolescent rates going up by 60% and early adolescent Black youth being twice as likely to die as their white peers by suicide.

This calls into question what is being done to prioritize mental health among Black youth to keep these rates from skyrocketing more. More importantly, how to prioritize mental health in the community as a whole.

What does mental health mean in today’s world and why is it important?

Mental health means a variety of things to different people. Today, for the up-and-coming generation of adults, it’s more about self-awareness and finding healthy outlets to cope.

“Mental health means taking care of and knowing yourself,” Tyree Bayan said in a phone interview. Bayan is a rising junior at the University of Missouri-Columbia studying Business.

Bayan also talked about how he had to develop his own feelings about mental health in order to shift conversations surrounding it.

“No matter what, you know, the other people in our community would typically say […] that things like therapy or even just making sure that you are taking care of yourself mentally is very very important,” Bayan said, “and if you don’t, then it’s a very big consequence that comes with it.”

Chris Bunting, a rising sophomore who also attends the University of Missouri-Columbia, describes it as us realizing that we are human beings, and each person has a mental “battery.” Bunting said in another phone interview, “At the end of the day, it’s gonna have to be recharged.”

While listing some outlets to cope with mental health, both Bayan and Bunting said journaling and meditating along with positive affirmations, drinking tea and water, taking time to clear their physical spaces, and reaching out for help.

Both of these perspectives put together help someone understand their limits, expectations, and what they are able to handle.

Mental health is also mutable and can be changed over time. Maintaining good mental health can help substantially with physical. Mental illness increases the risk of physical health being in jeopardy. It’s important to make both of them a priority, but it can be difficult for a number of reasons that may be out of one’s control.

Why seeking treatment can be a challenge

For the Black community, there are a number of social, economical, and historical problems with getting treatment for the physical let alone the mental.

While taking care of one’s mental health is just as crucial as taking care of physical health, many Black Americans may not have the necessary resources to receive proper care.

Historically, on the medical side, health care professionals have not done the best job of giving out diagnoses or caring about Black Americans’ overall well-being. Black Americans have some doubts about medical professionals because of this. 

With physical health, Black people have been essentially guinea pigs to revolutionalize the health care industry but have not been reaping the benefits as much. 

A prime example is the USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, commonly referred to as Tuskegee in the Black community. The study consisted of 600 male participants all of whom were Black. After penicillin was introduced and used to treat the disease, the participants were not offered it, and many of them died. The families of the deceased were eventually compensated and those that were still alive received proper treatment only after a lawsuit was filed. The experiment was called out for being “ethically unjustified.”

Then, the “Father of Gynecology” J. Marion Sims used enslaved Black women as his test subjects and did not give them anesthesia because he did not believe Black people could feel pain. Anesthesia was also a relatively new thing in the medical field at the time, but he decided to use it on a white woman after he “succeeded” in his previous experiments. 

Two of his test subjects, 19 and 17 years old respectively, experienced intense pain and suffering during his procedures and afterward during their recovery. Other doctors watched them scream and yell out in pain during their procedures as well.

While attending medical school, Black obstetrician-gynecologist Nelson Adams told NPR in an article from May of last year that they were teaching students that if a Black woman complained of pelvic pain, it is assumed that it was an STD and treated it as such. It was never assumed for white women. The ideology is no longer taught, but there are still biases among doctors.

Today, Black women are almost three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women and tend to be treated horribly through the labor and birth process in some places. Louisiana has the second-highest maternal mortality rate and a large gap in the rates between Black women and white women as of 2015. 

This is where the mistrust in the medical field comes in for Black Americans. If medical professionals don’t care about their physical well-being and still practice based on racist notions, how can they care about the mental aspect?

Furthermore, when it comes to mental health for Black Americans, it is treated as a behavioral problem instead of a mental one.

Now, it’s up to Black Americans to fend for themselves.

Mental Health in the Community

Within the community, Black Americans tend to downplay the effects of poor mental health. Research has shown that if someone has a mental illness like depression or anxiety, they would be considered “crazy” by friends and family members. For a Black person who is struggling with their mental health, it can be hard to seek help without being seen that way.

“Instead of risking the criticism,” Bunting said when coping with his own mental health as a young teen, “I just went into my own little hidey-hole. My own little bat cave.”

Part of the reason is that they don’t talk about it enough.

Senior Vice President of Ketchum Valarie Clark, who aids in Public Health and Health Equity, said in a video call that 25% of Black people speak out about their mental health versus 46% of white people. Whenever there is a crisis, Clark said, “We’ve [Black Americans] have always been at the bottom of the data.” 

If a Black person is doing well for themselves and struggling to maintain their mental health, the community thinks it’s almost odd or impossible.

The topic of mental illness or seeking treatment seems like a taboo topic in the community, but the truth is that Black Americans are just as likely to have a mental health issue as white Americans. This is not a “white person” problem; it is an “everyone’s” problem. 

Instead of reaching out to professionals, if all else fails, many Black Americans turn to God. Almost 80% of Black Americans identify as Christian, so it is natural for the community to look to their Lord and Savior in times of struggle, which is beautiful. Prayer is only part of the journey, though. 

Clark said that Black Americans are “not taught to share our problems with others,” so we lean on the Church instead in times of trouble. 

Confronting the mental health crisis and creating more discussions among each other will create a small domino effect in combating other battles an individual and the community faces.

Solutions and the Progress Made

While America has a long way to go in achieving equality for all, it is important to tackle one issue at a time, and it all starts with mental health. 

Everything comes full circle when factoring in biases in the health care industry including receiving adequate services, racial trauma, violence, discrimination, etc. in the Black community. 

Healthcare professionals have to regain the trust of Black Americans, and Black Americans need to have more conversations about getting help in coping with their mental health.

“Health is at the intersection of everything,” Clark said.

With the world over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many people, including Black celebrities and athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, have come out to discuss their mental heatlh.

“The pandemic did a serious number on a lot of people’s minds,” Bunting said.

With everyone being at home more often, a lot of people have had to come face-to-face with their own trials and tribulations. This has caused more people to speak out about their own mental health in the process. 

Clark said that public acknowledgment, public figures talking openly about the issue during the pandemic, and “full court press” are being catalysts for the conversation.

Recently, she said the suicide hotline number was changed to 988 for simplicity. People can now call and text, and someone is available live 24 hours if need be.

“As we continue to advance health equity, we have to make sure we are telling authentic stories that drive people to seek care and to ensure that our health systems are treating our Black patients in a caring way,” Clark said.

When we have more Black Americans speak out and be at the forefront of the mental health crisis, the more Black Americans will be comfortable talking about their battles with their own mental health. Together, the community and the rest of American society will continue to progress.

Link to additional resources from Valarie Clark, MPA.

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