What does the Black Community think about Mental Health and Counseling?
By Dr. Marilyn Sturdivant, Dsw, Lcsw
It’s not surprising that historically there has been a stigma related to mental health and the Black Community. So let’s talk about some stigmas that have suppressed our community. The statements below are not a comprehensive list of some of the stereotypical messages passed down to the Black community preventing them from receiving help, but it is a start.
Don’t like to talk about their problems: Many of us growing up were told by our elders that children are to be seen and not heard. Blacks were taught not to tell what is going on in the household. Black Males were taught in their household that it is not okay to show any emotion, especially sadness and crying. It is not surprising that black intimate violence is disproportionately higher than in any other culture in the United States. When we talk, we are not heard by our peers, colleagues, partners, and especially health professionals, law enforcement, and other systematic structures. Some of us who have been brave enough to talk about our problems have been dismissed, talked over, and unheard.
We are experts: It is not surprising that Blacks are intelligent, resilient, and self-made culture despite all of these adversities. We have had to be our own connoisseurs and have become autonomous. Unfortunately, this is another added culprit of historical trauma that has afflicted the black community due to slavery and the Jim Crow epoch. So now we depend on ourselves for assistance, even if the information is outdated, a myth, or something our ancestors have passed on to us. According to us, we know the latest and most outstanding techniques to lick our own wounds, even mental illness.
As for the “Baby-Boomer” generation, due to the enormous impact, social injustice had on this generation, they have not been allowed to express their vulnerabilities without appearing weak to their peers and have had to figure out ways to cope which might often be maladaptive.
Overly reliant on religion: Religion is a cultural norm for the Black community. The Black church is a means for congregants to serve as a haven to express their spirituality through singing, praying, dance and attendance. It is also a means to cope with personal and social problems such as discrimination. The connection with the Black church to Western society stems from pre-slavery and has carried us ever since. It was a time for rest, a place to feel human, connect and feel a sense of belonging. Speeding up to the 21st century, some black churches do not allow for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia or personality disorders. Instead, congregants are told to pray about it and are left without a solution. Praying is an excellent method; however, we need practical, tangible solutions in addition to prayer. I’m not aware of many religious leaders who speak about the uprise of suicidal thoughts, ideations, or successful suicides in the Black community. Neither are they talking about PTSD, trauma, or the disproportionate amount of mental health problems that affect us. Congregants divulge their deepest, darkest thoughts to ministers who are not trained to handle these issues like a mental health professional can. Also, overly religious people can shame someone suffering from mental health issues. I have heard religious people say, if a person commits suicide, they will not go to heaven, or a person has a double mind if they have schizophrenia or if a person is LGBTQ+ this is a mental health issue and they are going to explored in hell.
I have also heard some of my clients tell me that their pastor told them if they are depressed, they do not trust God to work out their issues. I believe religious leaders have a place and serve an excellent purpose, just as therapists. Would you allow a Mechanic to do dental work on your †eeth? Of course Not! Why would you let a Minister to do therapy on you if they are not trained? A good therapist will meet the client where they are and use what is working coupled with new tools to help them gain insight into their issue.
Lack of trust: Unsurprisingly, the Black community lacks confidence in medical professionals, law enforcement, or government officials. There is a valid reason for the mistrust in such entities. African Americans have faced systematic racial discrimination. Indisputably, there has always been a health divide regarding people of color. Harriet Washington’s book: Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present lets us know how haunting medical racial discrimination was. Blacks have been experimented on, forced sterilization, prohibited from receiving pain medication, and given erroneous diagnoses. In 2011 in the Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, Ezenwa et al, conducted a study of racial disparities in pain management of primary care physicians and empirical evidence revealed African Americans were more likely to experience discrimination by their healthcare providers.
I remember reading the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which told how scientists took a poor black woman’s cells without her consent and used them to advance medicine. Henrietta had a daughter named Elsie Lacks, and she committed to an Insane Ayslym because she was diagnosed with “idiocy( stupid). ” It makes me think that if Elsie were still alive today, she would likely have an Intellectual Developmental Disability(IDD). But, during this time, she suffered abuse, experimentation, and mistreatment for having a mental/developmental issue. Henrietta’s children had mental problems such as depression, bipolar, PTSD, etc., and none received counseling. Would you blame them for not seeking treatment? Ms. Lacks children did not receive help for their mental issues due to how their mother and sibling were abused and taken advantage of. Sadly, some African Americans suffer in silence about their mental health issues because they are too afraid to get help due to past practices.
Some Blacks may not feel connected to white mental health professionals as they do not understand underlying issues such as racial discrimination, conscience bias, or implicit bias in the workplace, therefore rapport is not achieved. Yes, all Mental Health Professionals have been trained to understand cultural competence and may question why a client would worry about cultural competence when facing depression or anxiety? In addition, many Blacks may not open up fully in therapy to someone who doesn’t look like them. Some Blacks may believe their therapist who doesn’t look like them would understand the feeling of how the heart races, palms become sweaty when stopped by flashing lights when law enforcement pulls us over for minor traffic stops. Or that dismissive feeling we get when we go to medical doctors wondering if the diagnosis is correct and are they giving us the same treatment as a white person? Also, the emotions we feel when we are told we are overqualified for a position, instead of just telling us we weren’t selected because we are Black. Lastly, the stress of “code-switching” when we aren’t our authentic selves. If we can be free to express our emotions, or will we be marginalized as angry black men & women? Will we be misdiagnosed as angry black people or dismissed as being overly sensitive to racial issues? Will a white therapist understand the social-emotional aspect of poverty and how every systematic structure has denied Black’s entrance into the dominant power structure? Lastly, will a white therapist say to a Black person with trauma, get over it you weren’t alive during slavery, it was just involuntary relocation and racism does not exist anymore?
The good news is that many trained African American mental health professionals are waiting to talk to you and are empathetic about underlining racial issues. You can find them on psychology today, headway, therapy for Black Girls, therapy for black men, Alma, or your insurance companies. Companies are now becoming more culturally competent and understand that it is okay for a client to choose who they want to talk to.
You can also join Facebook groups and podcasts with mental health professionals for people of color. I encourage African Americans to approach therapy as a tune-up or a physical instead of an undesirable task. I also encourage clients to start early at the first sign of an emotion, feeling, or event. Then, be open and give yourself and the therapist a chance to bond and build rapport before you decide it is not working. Talk therapy takes time, and it’s not an overnight miracle.
Dr. Marilyn Sturdivant holds a Doctorate in Social Work and is a Psychotherapist and has a private practice called MS Counseling in Texas; as well as a Medical Social Worker. She has a passion for helping others achieve their mental health goals. https://meetmonarch.com/therapist/dr-marilyn-sturdivant-dsw-lcsw-psychotherapist-grand-prairie-tx
I declare that I am the author of the article. July 19, 2022
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