Far too many in the Black community are suffering in silence. Mental health, particularly stopping suicides, must be part of the BLM conversation. Here are three barriers to care we must overcome and four ways to make lasting change.
The recent death of This Is Us writer Jas Waters to suicide is a wake-up call about mental health in the Black community. Suicide attempts among black adolescents increased by 73 percent between 1991 and 2017—a startling statistic and a call to action.
Far too many in the Black community are suffering in silence, dealing with mental health challenges but reluctant to speak up or seek help. We often don’t even realize the magnitude of their struggle until tragedy strikes and we lose another precious life to suicide.
When we talk about Black Lives Matter, mental health must be part of the conversation. Suicidal thoughts can take hold when emotional or physical pain feels too overwhelming. Suicide prevention, however, starts with providing empathy, support, and, ultimately, enhancing the value of a person’s life.
Three Barriers to Mental Health Care for the Black Community
Unequal access and mistrust of healthcare system. Statistics tell us that about 25 percent of African Americans seek mental health care compared to 40 percent of whites. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care.
To address those concerns, the APA recently launched the Presidential Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry. Those concerns are compounded by a legacy of mistrust of the medical community in general. Horrors like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Johns Hopkins experiment, and other similar atrocities that exploited Black patients have made many afraid to even seek treatment. Out of fear, those who are suffering still remain silent. In fact, Mental Health America reports that in 2018 alone, more than 50 percent of Black and African American adults with serious mental illness did not receive treatment.
Religious perceptions of mental illness and stigma. Some in the faith sector—which is often the cornerstone of the Black community—have not recognized mental illness as a disease, instead labeling those suffering from it as lacking faith or demon-possessed. There are churches that also preach that suicide is a sin and that anyone who takes their own life won’t go to heaven. Though these messages might be intended to be a deterrent from suicide, they are not helpful. Those views alone keep people from acknowledging or talking about their problems within their family or community groups. And so the silence continues.
For church leaders and community members who do try to help, most are simply not equipped to provide what’s needed. Well-intentioned as they may be, they may lack the medical training to provide the level of care some people require, which may include medications as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
The bondage of shame. Certainly, the shame around mental illness, substance abuse, and emotional challenges spans all cultures. But in Black communities, it’s amplified by the pervasive oppression as a result of systemic racism and discrimination. For years, Blacks have felt a kind of tough-it-out attitude: Life is a struggle—endure it. We come from a people who have endured unbelievable atrocities, from slavery to modern-day racism, and yet have still managed to survive.
At the same time, of course, the mental and emotional impact of “bearing through” mental health issues takes a serious toll on families and the community at large. The extraordinary amount of chronic stress that comes from bearing the burden also directly impacts physical health as well. The well-documented high rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity in the Black community are all tied directly to mental health issues and the resulting trauma, incarceration, abuse, substance use, etc. that also impact young Black lives.
Four Ways to Make Lasting Change With Black Mental Health
To progress on this issue, we must address the underlying causes and take a stand. While this requires some systematic changes in the healthcare system, it also requires us to do our part. We must elevate and prioritize our own mental and emotional wellbeing so that we can tackle issues like systemic racism as a strong and holistically healthy community.
Talk about the issue. By openly acknowledging the challenges of mental illness within our own families, church communities, and the culture as a whole, we give permission to others to also talk about the issue. By speaking openly, each of us can help to break through the stigma and change the legacy of suffering in silence.
Reach out for help. This is not a situation that gets better on its own by toughing it out. Make a list of those in your life with whom you feel safe talking about the issue, and, please, talk to more than one person. People around you do want to help, but many don’t know how to recognize the signs or what to do. Having more than one advocate on your side is essential as you navigate some of the challenges you may face along the way. Culturally competent treatment options must be accessible to properly support Black communities.
Keep an eye on those around us for signs they might be struggling and speak up. Is someone you know feeling depressed, crying frequently, agitated, angry, or aggressive? Have you noticed they’re drinking more or abusing substances? Be mindful of thinly veiled pleas for help—casual mentions of feeling despair, thoughts of suicide, or wishing they just didn’t wake up one day—and intervene. Reach out immediately to let them know you’re there for them and will help them get the help they need.
Religious leaders, start talking about mental illness and suicide over the pulpit, in your Bible studies, and with youth groups. Educate yourself on the statistics and about what’s happening in the communities you serve. When you acknowledge the pain and hurt felt across families and the community as a leader, when you start the conversation, it lifts the heavy cloak of silence that weighs down our communities.
There is tremendous power in breaking the silence and thereby breaking the chain of depression, despair, and internal oppression that’s persisted in our community for generations. When we make mental health a part of the BLM conversation, we send a message that even those who are struggling are valuable and worthy of the movement toward improving our society.
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