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African Americans vs Mental Health: A strained relationship

It’s no secret that the hardships and trials of Black people against racism in America is ever-present and woven into the very fabric that holds the country together. We wake up every day and at some point or another are reminded of this long-standing hatred of our people and our existence. We are additionally reminded that even seeking regular health care can be like a game of roulette. This has led to distrust and dismissal of psychiatric therapy and other mental health practices by African-American's. There is a living anxiety within the Black psyche constantly self-aware of the obstacles that lie just outside the front door.

According to mental health resource incorporation, Spring Health, the reasons African-Americans are so hindered from most mental health practices are:

  • Stigma

  • Distrust of the healthcare system

  • Lack of diverse providers

  • Lack of culturally competent providers

  • Lack of insurance, underinsurance

Unfortunately, these still only scratch the surface of the history of obstacles that we face when in search of mental health care and enrichment. Since our capture and kidnapping through the Middle Passage onto strange shores, the American narrative seemed to deem us inferior yet immune to whatever instances deemed suitable for our captors at the moment. It wasn’t apparent to white people of the 1700s, let alone white doctors and physicians, that like most things in the world mental illness has been apparent since the dawn of man. In her piece titled Mental Illness in Black Community, 1700-2019: A Short History, Dr. Uchenna Umeh gives a detailed battle between our people and mental health. Her first significant account is of the Virginia physician John Galt who theorized “enslaved Africans could not develop mental illness because as enslaved people, they did not own property, engage in commerce, or participate in civic affairs such as voting or holding office”. With backwater influences such as this controlling the progression of the medical field at the time, it’s no wonder the prevalence of prejudice-driven misdiagnosis. Giving natural reactions or occurrences due to enslavement their titles such as “Drapetomania, a disease that caused enslaved Blacks to flee their plantations, or Dysaethesia Aethiopica, a disease that purportedly caused a state of dullness and lethargy, which would now be considered depression”.

Both examples clearly derived from the majorly popular white narrative that Africans were supposed to be outright accepting and more importantly grateful to be slaves. In 2020, I don’t believe I need to explain the process of how white narratives like these crept into the minds of our freed ancestors and influenced their beliefs. This is still affecting Black families today, steering us away from bettering ourselves in ways that might seem unfamiliar. The primary tool out of many used in the slave trade to “break [us] ” was the destruction of the Black family through separation or sexual humiliation. This aided in the cause of many African-Americans not being aware of their ancestry or origin in general. So ever since, we have taken any measure at our disposals to ensure a familial unit is maintained, blood or not.


  • Higher prevalence: Adult Black / African Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults.

  • More likely to attempt suicide: Black/African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).

  • Less likely to receive care: As of 2015, among those with mental illness, 48% of Whites are receiving the services they need compared to 31% of Blacks.

  • Micro-aggressions and mental health: Higher frequencies of racial micro-aggressions negatively predict mental health and racial micro-aggressions are significantly correlated with depression.

  • Disparities in care quality: African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care. Compared with the general population, African Americans are less likely to be offered either evidence-based medication therapy or psychotherapy.

Here are a few helpful tips and tricks for combating any mental health obstacles you or someone you know may face.

  1. Check In w/ Loved Ones: instead of asking “how are you?” try asking personal and inclusive questions such as “How can I support you in this moment?” & “What are you thinking of ?”

  2. Find some personal meaning in life to establish an inner sense of control

  3. Take however long YOU need for some self-care

  4. Help yourself find a stronger sense of spirituality or faith

  5. TALK about any mental health questions/concerns you have openly with someone trusted.

By Jakim L.



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