It’s Not Just a “White People Problem”

By Chelsey Omoerah

Mental health is one of those things that is often brushed under the rug in black communities. I remember a friend approaching me with feelings of depression and she was convinced that she was overreacting because he parents told her that “black people don’t have depression” and that “everyone gets sad sometimes.”

MHA commissioned a survey in 1996 on African American’s attitudes about clinical depression. A shocking 63 percent believe that depression is a personal weakness and only 34 percent of African Americans would take antidepressants prescribed by a doctor. What has led to this overwhelming denial of illness?

Studies show that the experiences of black Americans directly impacts their mental health in ways that white Americans may never experience. According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health, adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites.

From a young age, black Americans are taught that experiences of injustice such as not being chosen for a position despite qualifications or harassment from law enforcement can be counteracted with respectability politics—by dressing “right” and speaking “well.”

It has become a necessity to learn how to live with everyday discrimination and disadvantage, and although we do what we can to push back, it can understandably take a toll on our mental health with constant feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

Particularly, blacks in areas of poverty are more likely to be victims of violent crime than non-Hispanic whites, in turn making them more likely to meet the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but if they never seek treatment—or even diagnosis—there is little they can do to reduce the effects on their own.

It is important to expose the masses to dynamic black characters and television is slowly highlighting mental illness in black families. For example, FOX’s Empire has two characters who both have bipolar disorder.

Actor, Trai Byers, portrays the bipolar Andre Lyon in the Fox series Empire

Although this is a step in the right direction, it does have its own missteps. Both characters engage in behavior that not only endangers themselves, but those around them, and neither character’s illness is shown in any other light besides their worst moments.

This can be a problem because mental illness is a spectrum of behavior, not just a snap between the good and the bad. Someone who may not know much about different illnesses may see the behavior of these characters and relate bipolar disorder to a normal person with spikes of crazy behavior, when that just is not the case for everyone.

Of course, television thrives off of the drama of their erratic behavior, but it is still a door opening portrayal of mental illness as a disease, not a weakness.

With college students in particular, rates of anxiety and depression have increased drastically in the last few decades and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among for our age group.

It seems that the odds are stacked up against black college students specifically with not just the stress of a being a student, but also the struggles of being a black American. I say all this to stress the importance of seeking help and offering support within the black community.

Studies done by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health shows that African American for all ages are underrepresented in outpatient treatment but overrepresented in inpatient treatment and prisons with people of color accounting for 60 percent of the prison population.

This disproportionate ratio between the two shows that many African Americans are not diagnosed or treated until they become harmful to themselves or others, or even until they break the law. It will take time to reverse the stigma, but it can be done if we acknowledge the problem.

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