Black History Month & Mental Health: Overcoming Barriers Towards Healing

Published on February 18, 2021

people helping one another up a mountain

Black History Month & Mental Health: Overcoming Barriers Towards Healing

For many, the Winter season is one of the busiest times of the year. 

From the desk of Bobby Jepson:

Between the late-year Holiday season and the cold weather keeping everybody indoors, there just seems to be more going on without the incentive or allure of warm, beautiful weather. The overcast skies and the frigid air cause us to prepare by bundling up and wearing accessories such as coats, scarves, and sweaters to reduce the impact on our physical bodies. However, the outdoors can bite us emotionally as well as physically, so what are we doing to “bundle up” and protect our mental health? 

February is no exception to this, as we are still shivering and anticipating the sweeping blossom of Spring. Meanwhile, we have two very notable milestones during the second month of the year: Valentine’s Day and Black History Month. Both of these traditions are synonymously associated with February, and give us a time to reflect on such important values. Valentine’s Day revolves around our loved ones; whether romantic, familial, or even just on a friendly level. Similarly, we have the entire month to learn about, and reflect on, all of the indisputable contributions that Black-Americans and African-Americans have brought to our nation, as well as the tough road that they have endured to do so.

As a mental health clinician, there are few things that bring me more joy than when someone in need seeks help. The social stigma of mental health only being for “crazy people” is a very inaccurate and unfortunate barrier to seeking mental health treatment, both for the clinician and the person or people in need of seeking out help. With this struggle in mind, it is important to look at statistics and consider what can be done to reach out to those who are less prone to seek out needed help.

In light of February being Black History month, it may be helpful to look at some statistics surrounding mental health in the Black and African American community. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, 16% of the Black and African American population identified as having a mental health condition. Within that group, 22% identified as having a severe mental health condition (2018). The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that by comparison, this is notably lower than those who identify as Bi-racial (24.9%), American Indian or Alaskan Native (22.7%), and White (19.0%). Amongst these groups, the rates of individuals with any mental illness receiving services are also noticeably lower in Black/African Americans, with “Bi-racial” individuals utilizing at a rate of 46%, “White” individuals utilizing at a rate of 48%, and “Black” individuals utilizing at a rate of 31% (2017).

SAMHSA also reported that suicidal ideation (passing thoughts, plans-of-action, and attempts) is rising amongst Black and African American youth between the ages is up by 3%, compared to a study done ten years prior (2018). This rise is concerning, as Mental Health America (MHA) reports that Black and African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than White teenagers: 9.8% in Black and African American teens, and 6.1% in White teens (2019).

There may be any number of variables that prevent someone in need from pursuing mental health services. MHA states that disparities can be rooted in inequalities in access to good providers, as well as stemming from discrimination by professionals in the clinical encounter (2019). The APA reports that a lack of proper insurance coverage, general stigmas towards mental illness amongst minority populations, lack of diversity and cultural competency amongst providers, and many insurance plans not providing better coverage for users are all substantial barriers in receiving access to treatment and quality care (2017).

What can be done to support the needs of Black community members who seek out, or may benefit from, mental health assistance? How can the average person make a change? This all comes back to the other milestone in February: Valentine’s Day. This holiday is most commonly associated with romantic, intimate love. However, it should also be a reminder for us to treat everyone around us with the same love and respect that we deserve. Show patience on the road towards someone driving too slow. Open the door for the person behind you walking to the same store. Greet the stranger walking by you on the sidewalk with a smile. Take this holiday as a reminder to put love and compassion out into the world. It may seem like oversimplified advice; but in discussing the subject of anyone who is silently struggling, that small act of kindness can go further than you realize. In this way, direct that same compassion and understanding towards yourself as well. We all make mistakes, it is an inevitability of life. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that. Give yourself a break as well!

To my fellow mental health clinicians, make it known that you are here to help. Do what you can to listen to and understand the perspectives, needs, and barriers of your patients. Beliefs about mental illness, as well as the people treating said illnesses, are formed through experience, cultural traditions, and formal education. Let everyone you come in contact know that you have both open ears and an open mind. Also, consider reading up on cultural competence and what it means for your patients. Tori DeAngelis speaks in her article about the need for the mental health field to grow in its cultural competence (2015).

Here at LifeWork Strategies Employee Assistance Program (EAP), our team values every single individual who reaches out to us, acknowledging that making such a call to tell a stranger on the other end of the phone that help is needed is a very difficult thing to do. Regardless of factors such as race, ethnicity, occupation, orientation, etc., there is a social pressure to appear as if everything in your life is okay. The EAP proudly serves you with compassion and love, and are here to help you. Let us work together to help you come to a place where you can truly have a better handle on the struggles of life. After all, they say that you cannot truly love others until you love yourself.

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