The stigma associated with mental illness, mistrust of the health care system, and fear of ‘putting my business in the street’ are some of the factors preventing Black Americans from getting the help they need.

by Jenise Griffin Morgan
Special to the NNPA from The Florida Courier

The days of declaring that suicide is a White man’s disease are long over.

Legendary “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, age 75, shot himself in the head on Feb. 1, 2012. Ten months later, Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, 25, died the same way – after murdering the mother of his infant son. And just six months ago, 29-year-old former Disney star Lee Thompson Young similarly ended his life via a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The shocking deaths of these Black men continued to refute the Black “no suicide” belief that has existed for generations.

The numbers belie that belief.

Reports show that African-American men commit suicide at nearly five times the rate of Black women.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Black males between 15 and 24 – after homicides and accidents.

‘Post-traumatic slave syndrome’
Although African-Americans are less likely than Whites to have a major depressive disorder, the condition tends to be more chronic and severe when they do have the disorder.

Still, trying to get Black men to seek treatment when they have “more than the blues’’ remains a great hurdle.

In their groundbreaking book, “Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans,” Dr. Alvin Poussaint and Amy Alexander explored the subject of  “post-traumatic slavery syndrome,” described as the unique physical and emotional perils for Black people that are the legacy of slavery and persistent racism.

“The persistent presence of racism, despite the significant legal, social and political progress made during the last half of the twentieth century has created a physiological risk for black people that is virtually unknown to White Americans. We call this ‘post-traumatic slavery syndrome.’ Specifically a culture of oppression, the product of this nation’s development has taken a tremendous toll on the minds and bodies of Black people.’’

‘Face of government’

Dr. Michael Brooks, president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and associate professor at North Carolina A&T State University, also puts the heightened stigma of mental health in a historical perspective. He states it plain and simple – Blacks just don’t trust the government.

“Black people just haven’t ever been comfortable talking to anyone about their quote unquote, ‘personal business.’ That stigma has always been present and hasn’t really faded a whole lot,” he told the Florida Courier.

“Mental health still has the face of government on it,’’ said Brooks, adding that some Blacks’ experience with getting treatment has been negative.

“Who are the friends of the Black community?” he asked, answering that they have only been the Black church and its civic and social organizations.

‘Historical backlash’
“White people have a history of coming to their homes and not always leaving a good impression. There’s some historical backlash there.’’

He referred to the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which the U.S. Public Health Service tested Black men for 40 years, between 1932 and 1972. Informed that they were being treated for “bad blood,” their doctors had no intention of curing them of syphilis.

In his insightful book published in 2004, “Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men,’’ veteran journalist John Head wrote, “Racism is psychological warfare in the most literal sense of the term.” He believes that when racism’s humiliation and hopelessness is combined with a loss, depression often results.

He told the Florida Courier this week: “It’s not surprising that many in Black communities look at mental health therapy and medications with distrust. The Tuskegee experiment where Black men were denied the best available treatment for syphilis so doctors could study how the disease progressed is a lingering reminder that the health care system is always just about helping us and can do real harm.

“Add to that the fact that in minority communities, mental health care most often is something that is either forced on people or used only when things reach a crisis point, and you can see why people would be leery.”

Early challenges
Dr. Vashaun Williams, a psychiatrist with Gracepoint, a wellness and behavioral organization based in Tampa, agrees that the stigma is heightened in the Black community.

“I think without question the stigma exists for us nationally as a society and even to a greater degree within our African-American communities,’’ he told the Courier.

“Additionally, I think the perception in our society of manliness or manhood, to be able to handle all things…and not show any kind of weakness, hinders us from seeking any type of care or mental health care.’’

Williams noted that he often sees men who are facing a number of challenges at an early age.

“Sometimes we have young people at the most stressful times in their lives’’ – whether it’s from poor judgment, behavioral issues, or criminal activity, he explained.

“We have many referral sources that bring clients to us. Court-ordered (referrals) is one of the highest,” he said, adding, “some struggle with the law, with work. Sometimes they have struggles with relationships, then their family ends up bringing them’’ for psychological services.

Black professionals needed
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) cites that “culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African-Americans from accessing care due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural under standing; only 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American.’’

Brooks wants to see an increase in Blacks going to the mental health field.

He grew up in Orlando and has an undergraduate degree in psychology from Morehouse College, and a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Central Florida.

He calls being a counselor “one of the most arrogant positions you can have,” remarking that patients are expected to find their offices, pay money and “share their dark secrets.’’

Williams did his undergraduate work in chemistry/pre-medicine at Florida A&M University. He earned his medical degree from the Morehouse School of Medicine and completed his residency training in general psychiatry at Palmetto Health Alliance with the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. Two years of additional specialized training in child & adolescent psychiatry followed.

He says it’s important for more Blacks to go into the field of psychiatry.

Comfort level
Talking about mental health is a humbling experience, he noted. “It takes a lot to be able to talk about things you’re struggling with.’’ It’s important, he says that his clients, have a “sense of rapport and comfort.’’

“Familiarity breeds a sense of comfort,’’ he remarked, adding that “there are some things that may be culturally easier for people to express and talk about’’ with some of the same ethnic background.

‘Unattended PTSD’
Brooks added that Blacks experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) more than any other group of people.

“People of color have more unattended PTSD,” he said, primarily from incidents of trauma they’ve experienced. “They are just walking around dealing with it. They are just walking around messed up.’’

He added that it’s up to counselors to create a more welcoming image. And while he continues to advocate that more counselors of color are needed, he adds that it’s imperative for Black men to seek treatment, highlighting that African-Americans go to Whites for other services.

“People of color also must take a risk and make their mental health a priority. If the issue is bad enough, you’ll go to anyone you can get. Whenever you need help, you’ll go wherever you need to go.’’

Jenise Griffin Morgan, senior editor of the Florida Courier, is a 2013-2014 fellow for the Rosalyn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.

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