Deep Roots: Mental Health Stigma in the Black Community

(May 12, 2023) Although stigma regarding mental health issues is universal, research shows that it is higher in the Black Community. While the experience of being Black in America varies tremendously, there are shared cultural factors that play a role in helping define mental health and supporting well-being. Some shared cultural experiences are family connections, reliance on community, and dependence on their faith and spirituality. We often hear of people saying to “keep it in the family” or to “just pray about it.” I am not trying to discount the significant role family, religion, or faith can play in a person’s life, but this should not be the only support for those struggling with their mental health. Oftentimes, people need more professional support than what the family or religious institutions can provide.

Another shared experience for Black people is being subjected to racism, discrimination, and inequity. If you are treated as “less than” based on the color of your skin already, imagine the feeling of inferiority because you are mentally not well. The trauma effects from this hatred and malice are deep enough without further labels such as “crazy” or “dangerous.” This vicious cycle may lead some to just “suck it up” or “deal” with their mental health on their own.

The root of mental health stigma among Black people can be traced back to slavery. At that time, it was commonly thought enslaved people were not sophisticated enough to develop depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. The system of slavery was predicated on the belief that Black people are inferior and sadly that systematic inequality still persists today. From those historic misconceptions, we learned to ignore mental illness or call it other terms, like stress or being tired.

Historical dehumanization, oppression, and violence against Black and African American people has evolved into present day racism – structural, institutional, and individual – and cultivates a uniquely mistrustful and less affluent community experience, characterized by a myriad of disparities including inadequate access to and delivery of care in the health system.

I have witnessed much of this first hand in both my personal and professional life. My father endured horrific physical abuse and neglect at the hand’s of his stepmother beginning at a very young age. Fortunately, he was able to overcome a lot of his trauma on his own. He graduated from high school and became a dedicated officer in the US Air Force. He helped raise successful children and retired as a foreman at a steel mill but despite all of this, he struggled with his relationships with women his entire life as a result of the abuse. He was a strong, Black, Christian man of a certain age and as is common with so many, therapy was not “needed” or even considered. He suffered in silence until he was 72 years old. It took that long to change his view on mental health from the generational narrative he knew.

There are many “strong” Black people that never seek the help that they need because of stigma. Sadly, this often leads to undesirable outcomes that can range from incarceration, death, substance abuse, and separation from their children and families. As a child advocate, I saw many families destroyed by unaddressed mental health. Parental mental health is a risk factor for numerous issues affecting a child’s physical and psychological development, especially the perpetration of child maltreatment. If a parent has adequate mental health care and support, this dramatically decreases the likelihood of neglect or abuse.

A parent’s unaddressed mental health can result in abuse or neglect which can risk a child’s removal from the parent. The parent’s mental health is then exacerbated by being separated from their child. The parent is then told by the system and the court that they need to obtain mental health treatment in order to get their child back. We won’t even get into the trauma that places on the child during this blog! If a parent can obtain treatment despite all that they have known and lived, there are often good outcomes. There are other times where the parent either does not get treatment or does not get adequate treatment and they do NOT get their child back. This generational trauma is very real and very unfortunate.

We need to stop the stigma surrounding mental health. To reduce the stigma in the Black community, there first must be acknowledgment of the historical and cultural factors that impact their perception. There also needs to be awareness of stigmatizing language around mental health. Black people sometimes are hesitant about seeking help because there are not many professionals that look like them. There need to be efforts to attract more Black mental health professionals. In the meantime, the current professionals need to be culturally competent and trauma-informed. In addition to several other ways to reduce the stigma in the Black community, one last suggestion I will make in this blog is to elevate the voices and positive experiences of community members. Those in influential positions need to continue to shout that mental health care is just as important as physical health care!

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Manager