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Disparities in Mental Health Treatment for African Americans

Why are so many people still uncomfortable discussing mental health? That’s 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 conversations around mental illness, there is still a large disparity between those who ask for help and 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. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness and hopelessness. 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? BCT Partners, a company devoted to advancing equity for all people, wanted to explore some of the underlying issues that negatively impact many individuals in the black community and prevent them from seeking 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 syphilis study of black men in Alabama who were deliberately and unknowingly 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. 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.

3. Gender Conditioning

According to Hafeez Baoku, an author and host of the diversity-focused podcast called The Roommates, there is an especially “negative stigma in the black community surrounding mental health.” Black men 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 support of mental health awareness, let’s all do our part to remove the stigma of mental illness for every person. We need to recognize the early signs, be willing to engage in the touch conversations, vote for supporting mental health initiatives, and encourage those that need treatment to get the help they deserve.

For more information about BCT Partners, click here.

To read more BCT Partner’s blogs, 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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