If you knew me, you would know that one of my main goals is to transform the stigma around mental health by bringing it into the conversation. While there is a stigma in all of society, there are some unique issues that magnify it in the black community, and it seriously needs to be addressed.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website says, "According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population." They also go on to explain that while 40 percent of whites seek mental health care, only 25 percent of African Americans do.
Recently I discussed the stigma around mental health in the black community with Imade Borha, the founder of the website depressedwhileblack.com and a friend of mine. We came up with seven tips that we believe will truly help people beat stigma and get on the road to recovery.
1. We need to prioritize peace of mind over material things
One thing that Imade and I both observed about black culture is that there's too much time, effort, and money spent on trying to impress one another. This can be done in the form of a flashy appearance or subtle bragging, and it's all done with good intention. However, according to Imade, it's actually rooted in slavery.
She believes that black people were traumatized by the scarcity our ancestors experienced in slavery. Having very few material items belonging to them, our ancestors who were slaves would obsess over the material excess they observed among slave masters, which took precedence over mental health. This obsession was passed down from generation to generation.
One of the things that we need to stress is the importance of peace of mind. We need to learn to focus on this instead of looking good to each other. This might mean prioritizing therapy over clothing, cars, and other material things.
2. We need to normalize treatment instead of mental distress
It's important that we learn how to better use language around mental health. For example, when people have conversations about depression, you may not hear them using the word depression. Instead, you'll hear words like tired, exhausted, or sad. According to Imade "by not calling a symptom or condition by its proper medical term, mental distress is actually being normalized.”
It's important that we become more aware of the tendency to both celebrate and trivialize mental distress. We may laugh about the person who's known as the neighborhood alcoholic named Sparkles. Everyone knows Sparkles by name. But, at the end of the day, Sparkles needs help, and he's not getting it because people are not seeing the problem for what it truly is. This is just one example of how we have normalized mental distress, but we have not normalized treatment.
3. We need to redefine what "strong" is
As a black man, this one really hits home with me. We love to use the terms “strong black man” and “strong black woman.” Like many other cultural habits, it comes from good intentions. But, it's really important that we widen the definition of what that means.
When it comes to mental health, being strong doesn't mean that you don't need help or get help. Instead, being strong means being able to ask for help when you need it. Once someone is able to get the help that he or she need, things begin to change for the better.
4. We need more mental wellness role models in the black community
We need to look at role models in the black community who are talking about mental health. For instance, we have NFL player Brandon Marshall, Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, and one of my favorites Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City. She is a huge advocate for mental health and speaks openly about the challenges that her family has struggled with.
When we have role models that are inserting mental health in the conversation, it will inspire us to model them. It helps us feel less alone and reminds us that other people have the same internal battles that we do.
5. We need more resources that are easily accessible
There are many resources around mental health, like HealthCentral. But, we need to spread the word and make them easily accessible in the black community. A few other good websites are Therapy for Black Girls and Therapy for Black Boys.
To empower mental wellness in the black community, it’s important that we provide educators and people in positions of power with resources about mental health treatment: information about symptoms and where to go for help.
6. We need access to free therapy in black communities
According to The Brookings Institution, "large gaps in median household income persist between blacks and the rest of America." In fact, there is a $10,000 difference between the incomes of black people and white people. This discrepancy makes it much more difficult for black people to have access to the same mental health treatment that whites have, if any treatment is even available in their community.
That's why it's so important that we find ways to get free, high-quality therapy into the black community that can be immediately accessed. We need to get people the help they need.
I don't necessarily think this treatment needs to be a government-funded. Individual non-profit organizations that want to focus on bringing mental health care to communities are one feasible way to allow better access. Ultimately, having easier access will be a step forward towards giving people the tools to empower themselves and helping the black community rise.
7. We need to be the example of self-care
Improving self-care is the final step and one of the most important actions towards breaking the stigma when it comes to mental health in the black community. "We need to live as the example of what self-care is so others can see that example," says Imade. Leading by example will help you navigate your mental health challenges and help the people in your life take better steps toward mental wellness. It's important to remember that self-care looks a little different to each person.
The following are examples of what this might look like:
- Getting the proper exercise and making better food choices
- Taking your medication as prescribed
- Going to therapy when needed
- Being open about your challenges with your family
One final note
One last insight from Imade was the importance of creating a stigma-free zone. "There needs to be a safe space to bring mental health into the conversation. So, when you are socializing with people and talking about mental health in your own life or listening to others share, you need to be intentional about making it a safe space. People need to know that it's okay to discuss. In a safe space, there's no shaming, there's no blaming, and there's no cutting off the conversation. It's just a safe space."
These seven strategies can help the black community beat stigma and get on the road to recovery.