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How Stigma Creates Treatment Disparities for the African American Community

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

There has long been a stigma around discussing mental health issues. That is equally true for all people regardless of whether they are men, women, straight, gay, black, white or Hispanic. And while our society is beginning to be more comfortable with a conversation around mental illness, there is still a large disparity between those who ask for help as well as those who receive it. For example, 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. And that does not even consider the families of those people, meaning that mental illness literally touches all of us. And, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Despite this, African Americans are less likely than whites to seek out treatment and more likely to end treatment prematurely.

But what creates the barriers to more African Americans seeking help and what are the inequities that result from that? Open Mind Health wanted to explore some of the underlying issues that negatively impact the black community and prevent many from taking advantage of treatment options.

1. Mistrust

Many African Americans have been negatively affected by discrimination in the health care system. Not only do they often have less access to the best doctors and hospitals, but a history of misdiagnoses and inadequate treatment has led to a general distrust. Some call this distrust the "Tuskegee effect" — skepticism linked to the U.S. government's once-secret study of black men in Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis. In addition, there has been less funding for research around topics such as mental health and the effects and treatment options for the African American community.

2. Lack of Access

Without adequate insurance, many people do not have the luxury of treatment or access to expensive medications. As of 2012, 19% of African Americans had no form of health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has cut that number down to 11% but that is still a substantial portion of the population that cannot afford mental health services. So how does this lack of treatment disproportionately impact African Americans? Well, we know that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs or alcohol, or end up homeless. Many people that could contribute productively to society end up in dire situations that become almost impossible to escape. By the time that many people do get help, the problem has spiraled out of control. Mental illness can often lead to incarceration as well because the undiagnosed illness has caused the person to exhibit erratic behavior, abuse drugs or alcohol, and perhaps even commit a crime. Although African Americans make up approximately 13% of the total population is the U.S., they make up 40% of the homeless population and almost 50% of those that are incarcerated. As Dr. Craig Beach, founder of Open Mind Health, states “Mental illness doesn’t just affect the person suffering from the illness directly. It affects their family and their friends, and it exerts a huge toll on society. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms early and get the appropriate treatment. No one should ever be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.”

3. Gender Conditioning

According to Hafeez Baoku, an African American who hosts a podcast called The Roommates there is an especially “negative stigma in the black community surrounding mental health.” Black men in particular have been conditioned to believe that they should never appear vulnerable. So, in 2017, Baoku made a film called “Help” with the express intention of making the subject less taboo. The film tells the fictional story of a young black man named Raheem, who appears to have it all together on the outside but has hidden struggles within. Baoku’s goal was to start a dialogue around why black men feel that they cannot express emotions or ask for help without being labeled as weak. Additionally, systemic racism and the lack of culturally sensitive treatment may also play a role. In fact, the majority of practitioners are white, so there is a small likelihood of being treated by a black therapist when only four percent of psychologists are black and only two percent of psychiatrists.

So, in honor of black history month, let’s all do our part to remove the stigma of mental illness for every race. Let’s encourage those that need treatment to get it and let’s help as many people as possible get on the path to mental wellness.

For more information about Open Mind Health, click here.

If you are suffering from mental illness or you have family or friends that are struggling, don’t wait to get help. Please find resources below:

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