By Ariel Baise
The 2020s have not been great for the Black community’s mental health, thanks to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, unstable economy, and unsettling racial tension that gets plastered across the media daily. Though there have been some moments of hope, everyone seems to have forgotten all of their Black Lives Matter promises. While our community is trying to prioritize our self-care and wellness, it’s not always as easy as it seems.
Due to historical adversity, Black people’s mental health has long been pushed to the side. The stigma around mental health has origins that go back to slavery, when Black people were believed to be too “unsophisticated” to develop something like anxiety. Despite being several generations beyond that era, the trauma, policies, stereotypes, and psychological shock from that period still impacts Black people today. Enduring present-day discrimination and microaggressions only adds to that traumatic history.
The stigma around mental health in the Black community is a complex issue. There is prominent and well-known distrust between Black Americans and the medical system due to its historical abuse towards Black people. In many Black communities, mental health is also kept very hush-hush and not easily discussed. According to the Black Mental Health Alliance, Black people have indicated that “mild depression or anxiety would be viewed as ‘crazy’ in their social circles.” Because the Black community is often described as “strong,” “resilient,” and “powerful,” seeking help is often seen as a sign of weakness, placing extra pressure on Black people to keep their struggles inside.
Poverty adds another layer to the psychological distress – the Black community made up 19.5 percent of the poverty rate in 2021, and 11.5 percent of the Black population does not have health insurance, making most mental health treatments an impossibility amongst people who need them most. Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Then there’s the media, which is a double-edged sword. How Black people are represented in the media plays a pivotal role in Black people’s mental health, wellbeing, and self-image. One minute we’re shoved fictional caricatures of all the negative stereotypes of our race on TV dramas and reality shows. Then, if you flip a channel, the news is replaying violent acts against Black men and women. Imagine waking up in the morning and the first thing you see is a person who looks like you being mistreated or killed by the police, over and over again.
This trauma of having to watch Black people be stereotyped, mistreated or killed wasn’t spoken about much until George Floyd’s murder in 2020. On social media, Black users were warning each other not to log on due to the graphic and traumatic nature of content showing up that whole summer. There was an outpouring of support from outside the Black community, and a sense that maybe things would change.
But now in 2022, all the promises of change during the height of racial tension seem to have dissipated. Many Black corporate employees were placed in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion roles where they have to essentially explain why their existence and other minorities matter. Black-owned businesses who received an outpouring of donations during the protests are now straining to stay open. In short, there is a lack of resourceful, authentic care for Black Americans, which has an impact on our collective mental health.
When we go to seek treatment for our mental health, it can be tough to find a practitioner who understands our experience. Black therapists make up only 3 percent of psychologists, according to the American Psychological Association, and only 1.5 percent of American Psychological Association members are Black. Most Black people want a practitioner who can relate, sympathize, and give unbiased, culturally competent advice. Some issues that Black people face simply can’t be fully grasped by other races, such as racial trauma, cultural nuances, etc.
To overcome this gap and tackle the mental health crisis in our community, we need more Black people in the psychology field, whose studies we’ve long been left out of. Just in 2018, the first study of its kind found that more than one-third of elementary-age suicide rates involved Black children, exceeding that of white children. While teen dramas often depict suicide as a white, suburban issue, the suicide attempt rates for Black Americans are dangerously high. Before 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for African Americans. The rates are especially high amongst Black girls.
What’s clear is that there is a need to have a more open dialogue about Black mental health in and outside of our community. Allies need to recognize that their Black peers might be struggling with things outside of their own lived experience. We are not the superheroes that the media sometimes portrays us as – reach out and ask us how we are doing.
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