As we enter Black History Month it is important to understand the issues surrounding mental illness and how this has and continues to play in the lives of African Americans. The history of mental illness and African Americans is a complex and troubled one, marked by systemic racism, discrimination, and a lack of access to quality healthcare. Just like all other people, African Americans are not immune to trauma. The lack of appropriate care for this trauma can have a profound impact on mental health, leading to increased rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide.
As far back as the 18th and early 19th centuries, enslaved people were believed to be immune to mental illness. This misconception was used to justify their brutal treatment and deny them basic human rights. On the contrary, after slavery ended, African Americans were increasingly seen as having mental illness along with racist stereotypes linking them to violence and criminality. This perception fueled discriminatory practices in the mental health system, including segregation in treatment institutions and biased diagnoses.
Throughout history, African Americans have faced significant barriers to accessing mental health care. These barriers included a lack of culturally competent providers along with the stigma associated with mental illness in Black communities. Also contributing to these barriers were poverty and the lack of general healthcare. This was often due to the individual’s lack of health insurance. All these factors contributed to lower rates of diagnosis and treatment for mental illness among African Americans compared to other Americans, and sadly, this continues today.
So, where are we now? Well, we still have so much that needs to be accomplished. There has been a growing awareness of the mental health disparities faced by African Americans. This has led to the hiring of larger numbers of mental health providers who are culturally competent. More education is taking place to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness in Black communities. There is also more work being done to expand access to mental health care for low-income and uninsured individuals. But even with these actions, challenges remain in addressing the needs of Black communities and the ongoing systemic racism and discrimination they face every day. The lack of appropriate funding for mental health services along with the shortage of mental health professionals, especially in underserved communities, at times is daunting. Most importantly, society must continue to create a more just and equitable mental health system for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.
So, as we go forward with recognizing Black History Month, let us not forget the powerful words of the Rev. Martin Luther King …
“Of all the forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
For well over twenty years, The Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester has built a reputation for working to understand and improve on these issues, especially when they come from stigma and discrimination. Through this, we have been committed to a workplace of mental health treatment that encourages and respects diversity and strives for equity, and inclusion, ultimately creating a sense of belonging.
What we do today may not always solve the problems of today, but history tells us, it can be impactful in change for the future.
The National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health (NNED)
The JED Foundation
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
The Mental Health.gov website
Your local Mental Health Center ( mhcgm.org )
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue and needs help, Please Call 833-710-6477
Rik Cornell, LICSW
VP of Community Relations & Development
The Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester