Today I was speaking to another African American about mental health and our communities. We each have our issues in our families, and we found common ground in our discussion. That dialogue is the basis for this article.
The toll of racism on African American mental health.
African Americans are 10 percent more likely to experience severe mental distress because of socioeconomic disparities. The black experience is hard in America.
As a race of people that suffered under 300 hundred years of chattel slavery and another 60 years of Jim Crow, it’s no wonder we are more vulnerable than the nation at large to mental illness.
I know this because of my own experiences and anger. I have four college degrees, and I still have to work harder and be above reproach. As an educator, I’ve been told I was too expensive to re-enter the school system as a school administrator — a job I held for six years. The white man who received the job over me was not qualified and barely had the degree required for the position.
If I speak in a stern tone, I am an angry Black man. I don’t have the privilege to be of strong opinion in some circles.
I have to talk to my Black children differently. I must warn them about the police and how to act at a traffic stop. I must prepare them for microaggressions from ignorant people who don’t understand their words hurt and cut deep.
I am obligated to warn my Black daughter about being a double minority in a racist system. She doesn’t only have to be aware of being an African American but a woman in a world still dominated by men.
I can’t walk through a department store without a woman accusing me of being a purse thief and then act like she did nothing wrong. I live in stress mostly every day of my life because I must navigate the racism and infrastructure built not to favor me or any minority.
All of the above causes anxiety and distress. I feel not wanted in a country built on the backs and blood of my ancestors. I maintain my health by attending yearly physicals and listening to my physician. However, I am still worried about my life expectancy and mental health as a Black man.
How African Americans deal with mental illness.
African Americans don’t seek out mental health resources. According to NAMI(The National Alliance on Mental Illness), only 30 percent of African Americans with mental health issues receive treatment compared to 43 percent nationally. Therefore the other 70 percent is languishing untreated and not understanding what to do. The families of these individuals probably don’t understand either. Furthermore, there is a particular shame in the African American community about having a mental illness and, therefore, don’t seek help.
African Americans must seek out mental health professionals. However, on many occasions, socioeconomic status is a roadblock to treatment. It’s difficult for African Americans to find providers because as of 2017, 11 percent doesn’t have health insurance.
However, in many cases, African Americans don’t know where to locate the help needed. Furthermore, the symptoms are not recognized in our communities, and sometimes attributed to the blues are just being down. We wait for it to pass, not understanding the depths of despair we or our loved one is experiencing.
In the African American community, we turn to our faith often to solve problems. Praying is beneficial, but there are times we need more help. Our faith communities can support and provide direction but can not substitute for proper mental health care.
Racial Bias in mental health providers and the lack of Black Doctors.
Two incidents in American history that stand out when we speak about racial bias in health care — Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Experiment. Both of these troubling pieces of medical history involved using African Americans for medical research without their consent.
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for cervical bleeding. During her examination, a malignant tumor was discovered, and cells were taken without her consent. She passed away of cancer in October of that same year. Her cells were found to survive outside the human body and thrive. This discovery led to cutting edge vaccines and treatment for cancer.
She is considered the mother of modern medicine because of her unique biology. However, once again, African Americans are the foundation of great discovery and receive virtually nothing. Her son, who is over 85 years old, is still distraught over how his mother was treated that day in 1951. This kind of pain doesn’t dissipate. She has received credit for her contribution in recent years because of the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and the movie starring Oprah Winfrey. The additional tragedy is that the family never received compensation for their mother’s cells, the book, or the movie. Five family members did consult on the movie for a fee, but that is where any money ends.
In 1932 The Tuskegee Experiment began at Tuskegee University in concert with the Public Health Service. 399 men with syphilis and 201 without were given treatments for “Bad Blood”, which included syphilis and a variety of other disorders. It was later found they were never given the option to quit the study, which continued for 40 years. Furthermore, they weren’t told the true nature of the research or given the proper treatment, which became penicillin in 1947.
Eventually, an advisory panel formed, and the study stopped, but not after four decades of damage was done to these poor African American men. However, no amount of reparations erases the damage done to these American citizens and their families. There was no regard for their safety because, as usual, our lives are disposable and not worth saving.
According to U.S News and World Report, only 6 percent of the U.S.A’s doctors were Black in 2018. Shocking, but its the hard truth. To adequately deal with the diseases African Americans deal with, we need more doctors who understand. Many Black patients feel the white doctor can’t relate to their problems, and in many cases, they are correct. Race plays a significant part in the medical profession.
The same study states that Blacks especially men have better health outcomes when treated by doctors that look like them and the life expectancy gap between white and black men shrank
In my own experience, as a black man, I’ve found it easier to speak to a black doctor. They understand what it means to wear brown skin in this country. We have a specific language we use with each other that cause us to let our guard down and be open to what the doctor has to say.
As a black man in America, I live a strained lifestyle. At times I am terrified for my mental health. It’s tough raising black kids in a nation that is so divided over the race issue. I think about my daughter’s double minority status and the problems she may face as a woman. I contemplate my oldest son’s safety every time he nestles behind the wheel of a car. The police stopped him four times in the last year.
My daughter is bipolar, and we are blessed to have proper insurance, which pays for her counseling and medication. However, my heart bleeds for my brother and sisters who can’t afford mental health services or refuse because of some idea of strength. Furthermore, there is hope in medical schools because more students are studying social justice and willing to addess biases in the medical profession.
Estacious(Charles White) is a 23-year educator. He began writing over 25 years ago. His work experience encompasses managing schools and teaching a variety of subjects. His passions are poetry, short fiction, playwrighting, and non-fiction. He won one of six prizes in the Rockford play festival for his play “Incarcerated Christmas”. He is married with three children and a native of New Orleans.
A further musing of Estacious.