The Silent Suffering and Stigmatization of Mental Illness

Mental health is not something we’re open to discussing in America. We speak about mental health most when a beloved celebrity has suffered tremendously and reached the point of choosing suicide. At these times, I’ve noticed how even more taboo it is to speak about mental health in the black American community.

It could have to do with the fact that mental health itself is oftentimes not considered to be part of overall health. But truthfully, there is a strong stigma against mental illness in the black community.

According to Mental Health America:

63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness, this is significantly higher than the overall survey average of 54 percent. Only 31 percent of African Americans believed that depression was a “health problem.”

Studies have shown that the effects of discrimination, racism, and sexism in the today’s social environment can manifest themselves into mental health problems. African Americans comprise 40 percent of the homeless population, more than half of the prison population, and 45 percent of the foster care system. Black people of all ages experience such circumstances, which can increase the likelihood of developing a mental health problem.

Still, our culture fights against signs of vulnerability and weakness. Due to our history in the United States, black Americans have understandably adapted to the idea that our strength is necessary and cannot be abandoned. Our strength is part of our survival. We must use it to overcome any and all suffering. But this idea works against those who suffer from depression and other illnesses, framing their pain as a lesser struggle.

Because of this stigma, it’s not uncommon for those that seek help within their families, churches, and other support systems to feel marginalized, ridiculed, and ostracized. Even those African Americans who are more economically secure fear treatment and the accompanying shame they could face in their community.

Undoubtedly, at times, family, churches, and such can provide fantastic support systems. In 2012, Ebony published an article on this exact topic. In the article, Simone Sneed, a woman who has struggled with bipolar disorder since the age of 13, describes how her mother supported and cared for her every step on her journey of recovery and self-love. On the other hand, many survivors experience what Glennes Eggleston, another subject in the article, did. Eggleston’s mother showed little support as her daughter sought out treatment for sexual abuse recovery and depression.

Sneed, although greatly supported, also gives insight into her outsider status in medical settings, which reveals another sad fact: professional help is not seen as a viable option. For one, economic limitations can prevent African Americans from accessing the resources needed. Besides this, cultural biases often keep African Americans from accepting and treating mental disorders through medical care.

Therapy is seen mainly as something for which well-off white people have the time and money. Therapy would be a luxury to many, especially those who have to focus on surviving from job to job. Furthermore, therapy is a profession dominated by white professionals, who throughout history have mistreated and exploited black patients for the sake of medical advancement. Today, white therapists may dismiss the intersection between race and mental health, with such brazen comments as “I’m not sure we need to focus on race or culture to understand your depression” or “If black people just worked harder, they could be successful like other people.” An environment like that is not one that creates improvement.

We can do a lot more to make those who experience mental illness feel more accepted in this community. Part of that could include changing our reactions toward mental illness. Part of that could be creating safe spaces to protect sufferers of mental illness, and finding black medical professionals to assist in creating these spaces. Mental health is a complex topic, but we must do whatever we can to speak about it, and allow sufferers to share their stories and seek treatment.

Cover photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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