The Stigma of Mental Health in the African American Community

The Stigma of Mental Health in the African American Community

The Problem:

According to statistics, more than 19 million are diagnosed with some form of depressive disorder and the numbers are continuing to grow. African Americans contribute to only 13% of the nation's population and are overrepresented in most statistics in regards to most societal ills. Incarceration, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, mortality rates for heart disease and the mortality rates breast cancer for African American women as well as Mental illness, are societal ills that are affecting the community. Due to the stigma surrounding Mental Health, African Americans are most often left either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, therefore not receiving the adequate care needed to treat their presenting problems. As a result, most in this category may oftentimes endure chronic homelessness, substance abuse issues, and a cycle of incarceration due to their mental health issues, becoming increasingly worst in some cases and posing a significant safety risk to self and others. Moreover, mental health related issues are masked by physical health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, stroke and obesity from depression related overeating which African Americans continue to be plagued within very high numbers.  However, many African Americans, like the rest of the population, most times, rather treat their physiological issues due to society’s acceptance of physical health versus mental health issues, which we have all continually witnessed the tragic ramification of with mass shootings due to unaddressed mental health individuals.

This continues to lead to circular and unresolved discussions about gun laws with the subject of mental health being swept under the rug in the end.  Lack of attention to any issue will give birth to growing misconceptions and myths which we have seen.


Historical Background of Current Stigma of Mental in African American Community

Issues contributing to the current myths and misconceptions deter many 

African Americans from seeking mental health treatment include, but at not limited to the following:

A) Distrust towards the medical system due to a historical deception of bureaucracy systems

ie. Tuskegee Experiment

B) Racial biases by medical professionals servicing African Americans

C) Lack of insurance and monetary resources to access and receive optimal care

D) Religious Faith beliefs

E) Fear of being labeled as "crazy" by loved ones.

How Myth the is Perpetuated:

            In my years in practice, I’ve often had clients report that they were attending sessions with me in secrecy due to fear of being ostracized by their loved ones and being labeled as weak for not being able to “suck it up” and deal with their stuff.  This has been specifically the tone for African American women, I’ve counseled who often commented on how they were expected to be “STRONG” and the “ROCK” for the family.  Interestingly, most also suffered from some type of physical ailments because of the overwhelming pressure and stress this unrealistic expectation causes.

I have also heard about family members, typically from older generations, the comment about only needing GOD for restoration and healing. I would often tell them that just as GOD made medical doctors, HE also made therapists.  I would go on to say how they wouldn’t give a second thought and delay in going to ER for a broken bone and that having a 

“broken brain” is even worst as it controls the entire body. Every time I provided this analogy to my clients, I could see the light bulb come on and their perspective on

Mental Health changing and viewed it as the stigma of mental health eradicating one client at a time. Some of the thought processes pervading many African American homes may also have a significant role in strengthening and perpetuating the stigma associated with Mental Health. The “what goes on in this house stays in this house” philosophy is one of those teachings that I too was reared to adhere to. This promotion of secrecy when it comes to affairs is what may children are taught leading to generations of unaddressed mental health issues. I’m glad I was able to break this cycle for future generations and continue being the agent of change I am today.  

Current Dilemma

 Due to these myths, many African Americans continue to suffer in silence with some senselessly losing their lives via suicide and medical issues or losing their joy and leaving losing their quality of life altogether. Sadly, a staggering number of African Americans would still rather suffer in silence than seek treatment. Although strides are slowly being made with the help of various social media forums, PSA with celebrities coming forward and discussing their personal struggles with their own mental health issues, there remains much work to be done.

Therapeutic Approach

Consistent service delivery that is authenticity, compassionate, empathetic, culturally sensitive and an egalitarian approach to convey partnership, as opposed to a one promoting a hierarchy and the provider as being a superior approach in treatment can help to erase the stigma as many have shared their disdain for the latter approach.

Symptoms of Mental Distress

Loved ones of individuals with mental health conditions are usually alerted first about their loved one's  mental condition by observing "strange or odd behavior" early on. Depression like other conditions is marked by signs/symptoms that one may overlook and/or minimize due to a lack of knowledge on what to look for.

These are some of the signs to look for:

Depressed Mood or irritability

Loss Motivation or Interest in Pleasurable Activities


Talks of Suicide or Homicide

Issues with Work/ School attendance and performance

Interpersonal issues with peers, co-workers, friends, etc..

Legal problems

Substance Abuse

Poor concentration/focus

Increase or decreased sleep

Increased or decreased appetite

Feeling Numb

Psychomotor retardation

Low motivation to complete normal daily tasks


Treatment Options:

Talk therapy/counseling

Psychotropic medication

Inpatient treatment (when posing a danger to self/others)

Group therapy



When it appears the individual is posing a threat to self or others, please call 911. 

The National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

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