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The Stigma of Mental Illness: Breaking the Wall of Silence

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By Deborah Walker

The stigma of mental illness–that is, letting others know you have a mental problem, often evokes feelings of shame, fear and isolation. Perhaps more than white Americans, African Americans see mental illness as a personal weakness and another indication that they are not worthy. This is far from the truth. Mental illness can affect anyone. Approximately 1 in five adults in the United States. experience mental illness of some type/form in a given year. Removing the wall of silence in African American and other communities of color can open the door to mental health and generational healing.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “mental illnesses refer collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders—health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” Mental health, on the other hand, “is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

While African Americans have used a number of strategies to survive, live, work and effectively contribute to their communities, they also are historically and currently subjected to high rates of depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), suicide, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Comorbidity—addiction plus other mental illnesses — also are prevalent in the African-American community than in others. Drugs of abuse can cause the abuser to experience one or more symptoms of another mental illness, and mental illnesses can lead to drug abuse. Some statistics on African Americans and mental illness are:

  • Adult Black/African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness, leading to this group being 20 percent more likely than other groups to report serious psychological distress.
  • Adult Black/African Americans living below the poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above the poverty line.
  • Suicide is the 16th leading cause of deaths for Blacks of all ages and the third leading cause of death for Black males between the ages of 15 and 24. Between 1980 and 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, compared to a 120 percent increase among non-Hispanic whites in the same age group.
  • Firearms followed by suffocation are the predominant methods of suicide by African Americans.
  • African-American LGBTQ youth also have high suicide rates.
  • Incidents of PTSD continue to rise at a disturbing rate, particularly among individuals who are homeless; incarcerated; children and youth in the foster care and child welfare systems; and those exposed to violence-related trauma in their families and communities.

There Is Hope

African Americans have been amazingly courageous and resilient in the face of racism and its legacies of oppression, discrimination and microaggressions. Mentally healthy resilience invites a willingness to “try on” new ways to bounce back from adversity. It invites letting go of the stigma of mental illness and forging a new relationship with our minds, bodies and spirits.

According to Victor Armstrong, vice president, behavioral health, Carolinas HealthCare System and facility executive, Behavioral Health Charlotte, “The untreated impacts of various traumas are tearing at the very fabric of the African-American community. We cannot allow another generation to suffer from treatable mental illnesses. We need a civil rights movement in mental health.”

Armstrong further notes that we each can play a role in this movement. He suggests:

  • Get information in order to recognize the signs of mental illness. Don’t be ashamed. Talk openly about your experiences and/or those of family members/friends who suffer with mental illness.
  • Examine your attitudes and beliefs about mental illness. Mental illness is not “the blues” or something to snap out of. Learn to see mental illness as a health problem like heart disease or diabetes.
  • Encourage your place of worship to treat mental illness like any other area of health care. Combine prayer with professional care.
  • While we recommend going directly to a mental health professional, if you are not comfortable doing so, start a conversation with your primary care physician.
  • Do not allow finances to stop you from seeking help. Contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to determine what services you might qualify for.

Without mental health, we cannot be healthy. Any part of the body—including the brain—can get sick. Seeking treatment can help you live a fulfilled life and can strengthen you, your family and your community for the generations to come.