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Unpacking Mental Health Stigma in the Black Community

Have you ever gone to a trusted person older than you to talk about your struggles with mental health?

In many Black [African American or those from the African diaspora] communities, this person is called an elder.

Unfortunately, individuals in an older generation have historically given advice along the lines of "just" pray about it and give it to God. It will be alright. Everybody is struggling with something.

While there is a kernel of truth in all of this advice and it's given with good intentions, it hasn't helped with stigma in many Black communities. It actually adds to the complexity and confusion of seeking help.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),

"Stigma harms 1 in 5 Americans affected by mental health conditions. It shames them into silence, guilt, remorse and prevents them from seeking help."

Sounds familiar?

Mental health stigma refers to negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes that society holds towards individuals with mental illness. As a result, it leads to discrimination, prejudice, and exclusion towards those who are affected by mental health conditions.

Stigma can have a negative impact on individuals causing decreased access to care and decreased quality of life.

Historically, many in the Black community have not been offered fairness or equality when seeking support, but through resilience, the community keeps going in the face of obstacles and systemic issues.

Have you ever thought about how this same level of resilience has added to the Black community neglecting or de-prioritizing their mental health?

To exist in a world where you are often devalued and overlooked, this can feel like you're fighting for survival just to exist.

Mental Health America reported about 7 million Black people struggle with mental health issues. This number continues to show a disparity [also known as major difference] compared to White communities.

Have you ever asked yourself, why is there such a big difference?

Perhaps White communities have access to resources and providers that represent them, more open conversations about mental health at home, more trusting of mental health professionals or they're viewed as a human being when they walk out into the world.

Common reasons for mental health stigma in the Black community

One big difference is medical bias which plays a role in this stigma. Over generations, Black people continue to tell stories of their mistreatment by the medical system and unfortunately, that can happen in the mental health field as well.

According to the Library of Medicine, Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia compared to counterparts. Although Black people are more likely to receive a psychotic disorder, it doesn't particularly mean that they live with schizophrenia more than White people.

Another common reason for mental health stigma in the Black community is historical conditioning.

When we look at other differences faced by Black people such as educational and wage gaps there has been historical conditioning to work twice as hard using twice the emotional and physical energy. In reality, there is very little time to process emotions whereas Black people are told they're being to emotional leading to a lack of trust and vulnerability.

Now what? There are many ways to break the chains of stigma and empower older and younger generations to prioritize their mental health.

Here are 5 ways to start:

1. Let's start by saying the word mental health

2. Hold safer spaces for each other without judgement

3. Encourage friends and family to seek professional support such as therapy

4. Asking, what happened to you versus what's wrong with you

5. Be honest about your mental health struggles without judging yourself which is known as self-stigma

Keep in mind, you may get pushback from your family or community members. It's likely that the more you take ownership and share your struggles, the more people will come forward with their own stories. Your story - struggles, strengths and successes are empowering!


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