In this time of tragedy and turmoil across the nation, we members of “You’re Not Alone” are reaching out to express our support and solidarity for the movement that is taking place in the United States and around the world right now.
While many of us do not experience the same level of struggle that Black Americans feel across the country, we recognize the tragic effects of a continually perpetuated cycle of intolerance and racial prejudice. As we try our best to raise awareness and to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health for teens, we also acknowledge that, unfortunately, systemic racism exists within this field as well.
According to Mental Health America, “historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping, and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social, and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today.” What this translates to is this: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated, or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health, on top of a lack of resources and access.
This is systemic racism at play. For this article, the term “systemic racism” is defined as a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other factors. All these factors contribute to the fact that adult Black/African Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, despite making up only 13.4% of the total population of the United States. In general, adult Black/African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than the nation’s white adults. And while Black/African Americans are less likely to die from suicide as teenagers, they are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3% v. 6.2%).
Yes, these numbers are shocking, and it can be quite difficult to believe that a difference in wages can lead to a significant gap in the percentage of having mental health issues. So let’s look again at the statistics. For every $1 a similarly qualified white man earns in the same job, a black man would only make $0.87, despite decades of effort to achieve wage equity. Considering black/African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. This means that, compared to white Americans, more black/African Americans are likely to suffer from the psychological consequences of poverty.
Compounding this problem is mass incarceration; Black/African Americans today are over-represented in our jails and prisons. People of color account for 60% of the prison population. Black/African Americans also account for 37% of drug arrests, but only 14% of regular drug users, (which is frequently associated with self-medication among people with mental illnesses). While whether these people are falsely convicted is a different question, one thing is clear: a criminal record makes it more challenging to seek rewarding employment, leading to a higher risk of poverty and, by extension, mental health issues. Moreover, Black/African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to Mental Health America.
The sad truth is, despite a higher risk of psychological distress and the expanding field of counseling and therapy, black Americans seem to shy away from the help they often need. The irony is that the professional help they need is often a part of systemic racism. Because less than 2% of American Psychological Association members are Black/African American, some may worry that mental health care practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat their specific issues. This is compounded by the fact that some Black/African American patients have reported experiencing racism and microaggression from therapists. In addition, stigma and judgment from non-professionals prevent Black/African Americans from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses. Research indicates that Black/African Americans believe that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. Furthermore, many believe that discussions about mental illness would not be appropriate even among family. This creates a toxic environment in which black people who require treatment are unable to ask for help, creating a cycle of racial injustice within the field of mental health.
While not all of us will ever experience race-related mental health stigma or a lack of resources, we need to acknowledge and confront this existing problem. Since You’re Not Alone is dedicated to raising awareness about teenage mental health, it is naturally our duty to also address and educate ourselves on an equally, if not more important aspect of the mental health experience in America. We will continue to stay informed, have difficult conversations, and reach out to help in any way possible.
To our friends in the black community, we know there is more work to do. We stand in solidarity with you. We are here for you. If you need anything or any support at all, please reach out to us.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”-Martin Luther King Jr.
“Black & African American Communities and Mental Health.” Mental Health America, http://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-african-american-communities-and-mental-health.
Williams, Monnica. “Why African Americans Avoid Psychotherapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2 Nov. 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201111/why-african-americans-avoid-psychotherapy.
American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/racism-stress.
The Costs and Consequences of Disparities in Behavioral Health Care, http://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/HTML_LargeReports/DisparitiesBehHealth_Final.htm.