By Charma D. Dudley, PhD, FPPR; Associate Director of Behavioral Health, Beacon Health Options; President, NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania Board of Directors; Member, NAMI Board of Directors
February is Black History Month and many of us take time during this period to reflect on the achievements, as well as the struggles and pain, that black people have experienced in America. Although many things have changed in our society, African Americans and people of color still face racism and discrimination, sexism, and some of the other “isms.” Well, what does this have to do with mental health?
Racism and discrimination affect African American individuals, families, and their community which may increase the risk of mental health conditions. Epidemiological studies (Kwame McKenzie) have shown that people of color who perceive that they have been targeted or treated differently due to racism and discrimination are at a higher risk for developing common mental disorders as well as psychosis. We know that in our society discrimination and racism are alive and well. So how many individuals are developing or experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions brought on by these stressors and don’t know it?
As an African American psychologist, I know that the African American community is beginning to slowly accept that mental health issues are affecting our communities and there are times when professional help is needed even though many would prefer to seek help from their pastor or a religious professional.
Historically, many African Americans rely on faith, family, and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals even if medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary. However, many will not seek help at all or become embarrassed or angry when mental health treatment is suggested or recommended. The stigma of “I am not crazy…you must be crazy” continues to exist. I encourage those who think like this to think differently and to try to get past this negativity and mistrust of mental health professionals and the stigma around mental illness.
Mental health professionals must realize that the lack of trust is valid and there is a need to acknowledge this. Mental health professionals, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, etc., must be open to discussing prejudice, bias, and racism to engage an African American client or any person of color in treatment. However, African American individuals need to be open and willing to accept mental treatment when it is necessary.