Mental Health in the Black Community

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

Introduction

Mental health, a critical aspect of overall well-being, often takes a backseat in Black communities due to myriad complex factors. The prevalence of mental health issues among Black Americans mirrors that of Whites; however, Blacks are less likely to receive adequate care. Stigma, systemic barriers, and a historical mistrust of the healthcare system contribute to this disparity. The cultural fabric within Black communities, while being a source of strength, can sometimes act as a barrier to recognizing and addressing mental health issues. This article delves into the nuanced challenges and proposes ways to foster a more supportive environment for mental health care within Black communities

Mental Health Statistics in America Along Racial Lines

The prevalence of mental health issues among different racial groups in America sheds light on the disparities and challenges faced by Black Americans. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns and people isolating themselves the issue has only gotten worse. The Household Pulse Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau in June 2020 found that 35.5% of adults in the U.S. had symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder. Of that percentage, non-Hispanic Black adults (40.5%) and Hispanic adults (38.3%) had a much higher likelihood of experiencing these disorders(1).

The impact of the pandemic on the increase in mental health issues is obvious, but the disparity of dealing with these issues aren’t new.   each year. However, only 39.4% of Black Americans with a mental illness received mental health services in 2020, compared to 52.4% of Whites(2). Access to mental healthcare is a significant concern, with barriers such as systemic racism, internalized fear of the healthcare system, and lack of insurance that prevents Black Americans from receiving the necessary care.

Annual prevalence of mental illness among U.S. adults by demographic group

Demographic GroupAnnual Prevalence of Mental Illness (%)
Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual50.2
Non-Hispanic mixed/multiracial34.9
Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native26.6
Non-Hispanic White23.9
Non-Hispanic Black or African American21.4
Hispanic or Latino20.7
Non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander18.1
Non-Hispanic Asian16.4
Source: National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMH)

Annual treatment rates among U.S. adults with any mental illness, categorized by demographic group

Demographic GroupAnnual Prevalence of Mental Illness (%)
Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual50.2
Non-Hispanic mixed/multiracial34.9
Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native26.6
Non-Hispanic White23.9
Non-Hispanic Black or African American21.4
Hispanic or Latino20.7
Non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander18.1
Non-Hispanic Asian16.4
Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

The lack of culturally competent healthcare professionals and stigma surrounding mental health also deter individuals from seeking help. Addressing these barriers by enhancing cultural competency, diversifying healthcare providers, and improving the affordability and accessibility of mental health resources can significantly impact the Black community's mental health landscape(3).

Unadressed mental health issues can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life. Exacerbating the problem is the stigma surrounding mental health, leading to isolation, discrimination, and fewer options for support. Furthermore, untreated mental health issues can escalate to severe physical health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic ailments(4).

Emphasizing the importance of mental health, advocating for systemic changes, and fostering a supportive environment are crucial steps towards improving treatment outcomes and quality of life for Black Americans. Improvement in these areas will also reduce the societal and economic burden posed by untreated mental health issues.

Understanding Mental Health in Black and Brown Communities

The historical backdrop of race in America has significantly impacted Black mental health, establishing a foundation of systemic disparities. The past, ladened with slavery and racial segregation has perpetuated mental and emotional trauma within Black communities. This historical context has fostered an environment where mental health issues are often intensified by daily encounters with racial discrimination, microaggressions, and marginalization. The mental health landscape of the Black community is shaped in part by the impact of systemic racism and the internal narrative around mental health that unfolds through the lens of historical adversities. The ramifications extend to the availability and accessibility of mental health resources, often hindering the community's ability to seek and receive adequate mental health care.

Cultural perspectives within Black and Brown communities often carry the heavy weight of stigma. Mental health conditions are frequently seen as a sign of personal weakness or a lack of faith(5), creating a barrier to acknowledging and addressing mental health issues. Furthermore, the lack of representation and cultural competence within the mental healthcare system often leaves Black individuals feeling misunderstood or dismissed. This cultural viewpoint within our community, intertwined with systemic racism and mental health disparities, often acts as a deterrent for individuals seeking professional mental health services(3).

Community support systems are a cornerstone of coping and resilience in the face of mental health challenges within Black communities. Faith and spirituality play significant roles as sources of strength, solace, and community bonding. However, while these communal support systems provide invaluable emotional and social support to our people, they are often not a substitute for professional mental health care. The emphasis on community and familial support, while beneficial, may sometimes overshadow the necessity for professional mental health intervention. Hence, bridging the gap between community support and professional mental health resources, while combating the pervasive mental health stigma, is crucial for fostering a more supportive and understanding environment for addressing mental health issues in the Black community.

Systemic Racism and Barriers to Mental Health in America

Systemic racism is a pervasive issue that significantly impacts the access and quality of mental healthcare received by Black communities. Various forms of racism, including individual-level racism and institutional racism, play a part in this dire situation. Individual-level racism, characterized by racial prejudice, and institutional racism, manifested within organizations leading to discrimination, are identified as substantial barriers to accessing care among the Black community(6). Studies corroborate that systemic racism often results in people of color, including Black individuals, not receiving the requisite mental health support they need(7).

Economic barriers further compound the challenges faced by Black individuals in accessing mental healthcare. The financial limitations stem from broader socio-economic disparities which encompass higher poverty rates and lower insurance coverage. These economic impediments often translate into prohibitive costs associated with mental healthcare services, making it exceedingly difficult for many Black individuals to access necessary care. Living in high-poverty neighborhoods often equates to limited access to quality mental healthcare resources, further entrenching the cycle of mental health stigma and untreated mental health issues within these communities.

The Importance of Addressing Mental Health in the Black Community

Community initiatives have played a pivotal role in addressing the nuanced mental health needs of Black individuals. Various organizations are tirelessly working to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and provide essential resources to those in need within the Black community. Organizations such as

have been at the forefront of this endeavor. These entities offer myriad services ranging from therapy and coaching to creating platforms for locating culturally competent mental health professionals. Their initiatives are tailored to address the unique challenges faced by different demographics within the Black community, including men, women, youth, and the LGBTQ community.

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford

Founder of Therapy for Black Girls

Questions? Stories? Need a mental health expert to discuss Black health issues and medical racism for your media story? Get in touch.

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