Improving the Treatment of Mental Illness in the
Black and African American Community
Andrew - Maryland
Mental illness is currently one of the most pervasive and ignored problems facing the black and African American community today. According to a 2015 report by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, black Americans are 20% more likely to report suffering from significant psychological distress compared to white Americans, and significantly more likely to be diagnosed with serious psychotic disorders. Additionally, black teens have a greater chance of attempting suicide compared to their white counterparts, and as adults are more likely to report feelings of hopelessness and sadness.1 These statistics are not only alarming, but reflect the underlying failure of the medical field and government organizations to address mental health in a marginalized and underserved community. While each sector has attempted to address mental illness separately, targeted solutions are needed due to the unique nature of the issues exacerbating mental health problems within the black community. As such, an interdisciplinary plan is needed to effectively address the problem, with a focus on three major obstacles facing the black community: the stigma surrounding diagnosis of a mental disorder, poverty and access to medical treatment, and the behavior and cultural competency of physicians treating black patients.
Stigma against mental illness serves as one of the greatest roadblocks to improving treatment, as it is based on numerous cultural misconceptions. For one, seeking treatment for a mental disorder can be viewed as a sign of weakness, running contrary to the themes of perseverance and tenacity that have permeated the history of black people in the United States. Furthermore, with 87% of African Americans reporting to observe a religion within the country,2 many turn to prayer as opposed to a medical professional. Black Americans may also be reluctant to admit they are facing mental health problems out of fear of legal action, this being a result of the greater proportion of incarcerated black individuals compared to whites.
An effective method to decrease this stigma could begin by utilizing the high proportion of religious black Americans as a focal point, with the medical community working alongside religious organizations at both the local and national levels to educate the public about mental illness, treatment plans, and effective coping mechanisms. Hospitals could create educational programs and outreach events at religious institutions to increase their presence in communities that do not trust the medical field. Moreover, they could identify parishioners who are medical professionals and work with them to liaison between their local communities and health services to increase trust in physicians and mental health services as a whole. To address the fears of possible legal repercussions when revealing a mental illness, local law officials and hospital legal teams could work together to host events on a mentally-ill defendant’s legal protections, such as doctor-patient confidentiality and state mental health courts.
- Office of Minority Health. “Mental Health and African Americans.” Mental Health - Department of Health and Human Services, 2015, minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24.
- White, Ruth. “Why Mental Health Care Is Stigmatized in Black Communities.” USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, © 2019 University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Feb. 2019, dworakpeck.usc.edu/news/why-mental-health-care-stigmatized-black-communities.