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Three Critical Realities (Besides Racism) Taking a Toll on Black Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor


Since 2008 when July was officially designated as Bebe Moore Campbell Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, millions of people have received education about mental illness and mental health to equip minority communities with resources for fighting stigma and providing support to individuals and families battling mental disorders. This year of 2016 has been an important year for black mental health. Research has shown that racism manifested as discrimination in employment, housing, education and virtually every sphere of life has a measurable deleterious effect on the mental and emotional health of black Americans. Not that anyone in the black community needed formal research to validate that lived fact. But the truth is that there are other realities operating within black culture which arguably cause just as much mental and emotional damage as racism and discrimination. This month is a great time to openly discuss these five dynamics and ways to erode their negative influence.

We keep too many secrets. It’s time to talk. Think of two black girls you know under the age of 18. One of them has been sexually assaulted and/or abused by a black man. A.black.man. This stuff starts early. When Uncle Petey is so ‘affectionate’ with the young girls in the family and his hand lingers too long on their backsides when coming out of one of his ‘hugs’, too many mothers and aunties quickly normalize this behavior and condition our girls to accept unwanted sexual attention by offering such excuses as, “that’s just how he is”; “you can’t pay him any mind, everybody knows he doesn’t mean any harm”; or “don’t be so sensitive—we’ve all been through it and we came out just fine.” The young victim is also cautioned not to go talking about it to other people, bringing shame on the family when it’s not even that serious. Thus begins her introduction to toxic secrecy—a staple coping mechanism in the black community. Sexual assault and abuse is just one of many acts that gets covered up. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) documents multiple psychological effects of sexual violence, including: depression, PTSD, self-harm, and eating disorders.  Physical and emotional abuse, neglect, hunger, pregnancy and abortion, and illness and disease also are routinely buried underground for generations by individuals, families, churches, and entire communities.

The black community’s history with the medical community is real, but so is the harm being done by silencing disclosures that can bring justice for victims and perpetrators alike, and healing by opening the door for loving but decisive confrontation within black social units like families and communities. Consider these possible ways to facilitate supported truthtelling:

Within families and other groups for which it is appropriate, designate 1-3 people as safe harbors who are available to listen and hear experiences without judgment or accusation. Create a family or group plan for how to progress through the situation from initial dialogue to action and if possible, resolution. Make it known that certain behaviors won’t be tolerated and will be disclosed and dealt with.
Take advantage of the group’s informal interactions by creating spaces to talk freely about feelings, hurts, and unresolved issues.  A workout at the gym or a dinner and movie night can become a time of open communication, and the beginning of addressing wrongs that need to be made right.

Lack of access to treatment and disparate treatment aren’t the only barriers fueling negative mental health outcomes. Denial and outright disbelief are major barriers, too and must be addressed in education campaigns and programming efforts. Research has shown that African Americans are more likely to believe that depression and other mental health issues are personal weaknesses and not actual disorders. This type of attitude both creates and perpetuates stigma. It is human nature to deal differently with someone believed to be a victim of their own inadequacy versus someone with a medically verifiable condition. Despite this belief system, a disproportionate amount of emphasis is places on lack of access and disparate treatment. People will not seek help for something they don’t believe exists. Access issues fit well into advocacy efforts and can generate valuable funding and policy decisions, but the first priority should be shifting mindsets from skepticism and stigma to education, sharing and disclosure by credible witnesses, acceptance, and support. Creation and dissemination of fact sheets, community peer training in how to discuss mental health issues, and integration of mental health education into common cultural venues like fraternity and sorority meetings and events, family reunions, and college orientations are important methods of changing minds and behavior regarding mental and emotional health issues.

An alarming number of black people are missing. The families of these victims need more visibility and support. The Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (BAMFI), using FBI data from 2014, reports that almost 37% of missing people age 17 and under are black. This represents about 170,000 children. MEE Productions, Inc. issued a 2010 report, Moving Beyond Survival Mode: Promoting Mental Wellness and Resiliency as a Way to Cope with Urban Trauma, based on community-based research on the stressors and coping mechanisms of urban life. For mothers and women, the top stressor on mental health was concern and fear for the safety and wellbeing of children. Every day BAMFI tweets multiple missing person alerts, one of the latest and most alarming being the fact that 14 12-19 year old girls have gone missing from the Bronx since 2014; six of them this past June. The friends and families of missing people, especially children can only be described as living hell on earth. This is an ongoing trauma that exerts incredible psychological pressure on two levels: first just from the fact that a child is missing; second from the collateral consequences of having to deal with the situation—possible missed time from work, family stress and dysfunction, and physical impacts like sleep deprivation. Community based organizations should have resources and information available for families whose child is missing, including the excellent publication, When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, produced by the Office of Justice Programs, a division of the Department of Justice. And for those tragic situations in which a loved one is missing for a protracted period of time or is not found alive, specialized mental and emotional support is vital.

This month commit to learning specifically about one area that particularly impacts black mental health. Do a deep dive and tangibly pass it on to your social network. Tweet, post on Facebook and Instagram. Everyone has a part to play.

Chandra C.Comment