The National Alliance on Mental Illness has declared July to be Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. For African Americans in particular, a growing chorus of experts is sounding a clarion call on mental health, and urging black communities to the same sort of vigilance about their psychological well-being as their other socioeconomic challenges.
There is a large body of evidence suggesting that a solid mental health infrastructure, one that is tailored to the needs of marginalized communities, is an important factor in overall community well-being. That’s what makes the gap in utilization of services on the part of African Americans concerning. According to the 2010 National Healthcare Disparities Report, blacks receive mental health treatment or counseling at only one-half the rate of whites. There is a similar gap when it comes to receiving medication for mental health-related issues. There is also a shortage of mental health professionals who are African American.
Jinneh Dyson, a senior manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is among those who uses her own story to challenge prevailing notions about mental illness within the African American community. While an undergrad at UT Austin, she was diagnosed with depression in the wake of her mother’s death. In her talks and presentations, she uses her own wellness journey to encourage other African Americans to cast aside their own reservations about seeking out help.
“Working on self was almost as powerful as overcoming the stigma,” said Dyson. “Just the realization that the journey I was on was not for me, but it’s for someone else, so that I must be the light, I must be the person that everyone else can look at and say, ‘If she can get through this, I can get through this.'”
Dyson said that a large part of her advocacy mission involves translating mental health concepts into a language that spiritually inclined African Americans can readily grasp.
“One question that I always get is: ‘How do spirituality and mental health align? How are you a person of faith, but also vocal about your struggle with depression?’ Even if you have a strong faith background, or you have strong spiritual beliefs, in many of the Christian teachings, the Bible says to ‘seek wise counsel,'” Dyson explained. “So, whatever it is you’re going through in life, whether it’s financial struggles, health struggles, or career challenges, we are to seek wise counsel. There are people who God has given, in my belief, special gifts and talents to help you navigate whatever area of life you may be struggling in.”
As an upwardly mobile young African American woman, Dyson is also well qualified to speak to the concerns of those who fear losing the esteem of professional colleagues by admitting to mental health challenges.
“As for professionals, I think that’s probably the most stigmatizing group, because you don’t want your peers to perceive you as less-than or less-of,” said Dyson, who used herself as an example of how people can recast their thinking. “My job is my job, but my ultimate calling is to make sure that people are free and that they have a voice, and to let them know that they’re normal.”
Through the Austin Area African American Behavioral Health Network, the Hogg Foundation has stepped up its own efforts to collaborate with and foster dialogue among African Americans who utilize the behavioral health system in Texas. Some of these challenges include stigma, the need for greater cultural competency among mental health providers, structural racism, substance use and the limited mental health knowledge among clergy.
“When experiencing a mental health challenge, if we even recognize it as such, we don’t make it a point to run to the nearest clinician or mental health agency for support,” said Vicky Coffee-Fletcher, a program officer at the Hogg Foundation. “Clergy and the faith community often offer support and guidance to African Americans who face a myriad of challenges; therefore, it is critical for faith leaders to be educated about mental health, wellness and recovery.”
“Until we recognize that getting assistance and support for a mental health condition is as important as getting help for diabetes, high blood pressure and other physical health conditions, we are going to continue to see individuals go untreated, abuse substances and face incarceration,” said Coffee-Fletcher.
However, it would be folly to assume that addressing the mental health needs of African Americans is just a “black issue.” The persistence of health care disparities is a systemic issue that calls for a system-wide response, including a willingness on the part of clinicians to take some fresh ideas on board.
“The first concept to acknowledge is that ‘better’ does not mean well,” said Dyson, offering an example of a question that clinicians can key in on in their efforts to help African Americans. “As a community of people we’re used to functioning in hard times, in stress and in turmoil. So just because a person is ‘better’ doesn’t mean that they’re well.”