OPINION – A young African American woman exhibiting symptoms of depression after a physical assault uttered these words when her mother suggested that she seek professional help. Way too often, the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment is a significant barrier to obtaining necessary services.
About 25 percent of adults in the United States have mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost two-thirds of those adults with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment, and communities of color are even less likely to get help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
A study and report completed in 2012 by the African American Health Institute (AAHI) of San Bernardino County for the California Reducing Disparities Project revealed alarming statistics related to mental health in the African American population. The report entitled We Ain’t Crazy! Just Coping with a Crazy System: Pathways into the Black Population for Eliminating Mental Health Disparities (Woods et al., 2012) found that in 2007:
· African Americans were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with serious psychological distress; were 50 percent more likely to report symptoms of depressive episode; and,
· African American female students in grades 9-12 were two times, (males were 1.6 times), more likely than their White counterparts to attempt suicide.
The study also found that factors contributing to mental health issues in the African American population include trauma exposure, daily struggles to survive, high levels of stress, and setbacks to social mobility and advancement.
Despite these indications of high risk, the study found that less than 1 percent of the African American population in California used available mental health services.
Why do these disparities in obtaining treatment exist?
For so long our communities refused to talk about mental illness and certainly would never admit that anyone in our family suffered from any mental challenges. We are comfortable talking about and seeking treatment for Aunt Betty’s “Sugar” Diabetes or Uncle Joe’s “Pressure.”
Yet when a friend or family member suffers from depression, experiences a psychotic episode or any other mental illness, we often pretend it doesn’t exist. Mistrust of the “system,” discrimination and culturally incompetent mental health programs all contribute to avoidance of mental health treatment.
In California, we have a unique opportunity to address these challenges through many of the community defined and culturally congruent programs that already exist in our communities. The AAHI CRDP report highlights many of those programs operating throughout the state. To learn more about the African American CRDP report visit http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Documents/African_Am_CRDP_Pop_Rept_FINAL2012.pdf
By Sandra Poole
Sandra O. Poole, MPA is the Associate Director for G.O.A.L.S. (Greater Options and Assistance For Lifelong Success) for Women, Incorporated. G.O.A.L.S. is a nonprofit education and counseling center whose mission is to ensure that no and low-income, at-risk African-Americans have access to free or low-cost culturally-appropriate mental health, behavioral health and primary care health. Ms. Poole is also the Owner/CEO of Sandra Olivia Poole Consulting providing consulting services to non-profit organizations in the areas of organizational development and grant management. As a Policy Analyst and Advocate with 30 years of local and state government experience, Sandra advocates for statewide policies that reduce mental health disparities and for the empowerment of underserved communities of color. Sandra can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.