Mental health problems affect everyone. No one escapes. We either have a personal connection or know persons who are affected. Given that one in five adults experience a mental health issue and one in five young people have experienced a major depression, understanding mental health is as important as understanding our physical health. Mental health and physical health go together. During the month of May, Mental Health Awareness month, we owe it to ourselves, family members and communities to increase our understanding of symptoms and resources to extend help, not judgment. Just as we know the symptoms of the coronavirus, we should also be aware of the signs of mental distress. For African Americans this is critically important.
What is mental health? Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. Biological factors, family history, and life experiences contribute to mental health Good mental health allows us to have successful performance in many areas including work, family, relationships with others, and our ability to adapt to challenges like the coronavirus pandemic. Individuals with untreated mental health concerns struggle in these areas thus affecting their overall well-being. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states that nationally, in any given year, an estimated 18.1% (43.6 million) of U.S. adults 18 years or older suffered from mental illness and 4.2% (9.8 million) suffered from a seriously debilitating mental illness.
African Americans have higher prevalence. We are 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While some of this may be related to misdiagnoses based on racial bias, we can also attribute racial bias to the higher mental despair in our community. Being subjected to disparities, hate crimes (like being killed while jogging) and other historically persistent micro and macro aggressions likely contributes to a higher allostatic load (wear and tear on the body). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), just under one-third of African American adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%.
Mental health professionals, like Dr. Janeen Cross, licensed clinical social worker and assistant professor, contributing factors to the higher prevalence in the African American community include racism, poverty, religious beliefs, trauma and stigma. I strongly believe that persistent racism and poverty are major sources of our stressors leading to mental disorders. It is exhausting to face racism day in and day out, year in and year out, decade in and decade out and on and on. When resilience is acknowledged the path out of poverty versus removal of structural barriers such as poor-quality education, health disparities, economic insecurity, we perpetuate mental illness in our community. Resilience is important but over reliance upon it creates added stress. Growing up with “success” messaging such as “that you have to be twice as good,” “beat them by a mile,” and “ignore the racism,” adds to the allostatic load. Dr. Tracy Whitaker, associate professor, writes about how Black parents give “the talk” to their young sons to provide them with the rules of engagement for protection against racism. Despite its good intentions, this is a heavy load for a child and potentially has lasting negative effects.
And now, we are enduring the coronavirus that is disparately affecting African Americans in many ways, including death, positive diagnosis, loss of work, access to testing, inadequate resources to home- school children, and more. Given these added stressors, it is important to be aware of when help is needed and reach out for it. There is no shame in getting help to get through this time of crisis in our community. If you know someone who shows symptoms like eating or sleeping too much, having low or no energy, feeling helpless or hopeless, yelling or fighting with family and friends, having persistent negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, complicated grief, and more consider talking to them about it and referring them for help. And especially if you feel that someone is thinking of harming themselves, immediately call the hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-800-273-TALK) and Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, press 1).
Stop the stigma about mental health problems in our community and seek help for self or others. You may feel alone, but you don’t have to be alone.
Sandra Edmonds Crewe is dean and professor of the Howard University School of Social Work.