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The Voice of the Black Community

Health

Mental Illness:
The silent killer
 
Published Thursday, July 5, 2007
by Drs. David L. Mount and Monica Rivers, Tierra Rudd

Nationally, poverty is increasing, the percentage of displaced workers is increasing, high school graduation rates are dropping, and emotional distress in the home is growing at alarming rates. In the black community, the social stigma of mental illness represents a major obstacle. Unfortunately, people are not getting help for their mental health needs.  The black community has historically maintained a distant relationship with understanding, addressing, and advancing knowledge about mental health care.

It is not surprising that mental health continues to have low priority in communities of color. Mental health is no less important than physical health, but both need to have higher priority. The continuing absence of discussion on mental health in the black family and larger community threatens the society’s health and wellness.   

Although the month of May is designated as Mental Health Awareness month, mental health is relevant 365 days a year. Around the country, and particularly in the black community, there is growing frustration and confusion about the vanishing social resources, the widening chasm between the ‘haves and have-nots’ and the increasing psychological perception of powerlessness.

And while there is growing acceptance and progress on several topics in the black community, including financial literacy, social mobility, economic prosperity, social injustice, and cultural identity, mental health awareness continues to be the proverbial “strange uncle living in the attic.” The absence of a mental health movement in the African-American community is a likely link to our high-risk health behaviors and increasing prevalence of chronic, life-threatening diseases that compromise the functionality of our family systems.  Conditions such as depression, anxiety (worry/“nerves”), bipolar disorder, and ADHD affect our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, children, nieces, nephews, and friends alike. And yes, the sister or brother sitting in church every Sunday is experiencing psychological distress but is uncomfortable and/or ashamed to seek support to address their mental health potentially linked to the fear of being “found out.”

The effectiveness of mental health treatments is well documented, and there are a range of treatments to address mental health difficulties. Unfortunately, however, the black community has historically maintained a distant relationship with understanding, addressing, and advancing knowledge about mental health care. Mental illness continues to have low priority in communities of color, and our communities have yet to understand that mental health is no less important than physical health.  
Growing rates of mental illness

In 2002, President Bush launched his New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. This initiative came on the heels of the Surgeon General’s report in 1999, which addressed at-length the need for attention to race, culture, and equity in mental health service delivery.  According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, mental illnesses account for approximately 15 percent of the overall burden of disease in the US, which is higher than the burden of disease associated with all forms of cancer. It is estimated that one in every five Americans will experience a mental illness at some point during their lives.  In general, persons of color endure a greater burden from unmet mental health needs, which can result in unnecessary suffering and impact overall health and productivity. Alarmingly, suicides among African American youth ages 10-14 years are increasing at a rate nearly double the rate of increase among white youth of the same age.

The time could not be more appropriate to think seriously about our families and community members.  We cannot afford to remain silent on an issue that is affecting our families and community on a daily basis. While many questions remain, an inescapable question is, What does it take to grow our investment in mental health awareness regardless of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or place of origin?  

Moving to action for improving psychological health

Improving the psychological health and well-being of family and community members should be priority in the African-American community. So why are we resistant to increasing our conversations about this personal health and public health issue?

Action-oriented thinking will ask what we can do now for the health of the future to help promote family and community awareness of mental illness.  First, we must be clear that family and community attitudes and beliefs about mental health must be adjusted in order to ensure that all in our community get the care they need. There are action-oriented strategies we can use to increase mental health awareness and mental health literacy. A few steps you can take include:  

1. Make efforts to learn about the symptoms of common psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

2. Pay attention your own emotional well being and notice the situations that trigger stressful feelings and negative emotions.

3. Use characters and situations from movies and television to stimulate and advance family awareness and conversations about psychological health.

4. Challenge mental illness stigma by encouraging open discussions about feelings, emotions, and psychological well-being.

5. Add mental health awareness to church ministries.

6. Avoid the use of language that describes mental illness in derogatory terms.

7. Remember that mental illness does not define an individual.

8. Understand that disruptive behavior in school by children could be related to underlying mental distress. Children experience psychological distress also.

9. If you are experiencing psychological distress, seek care.  

For more information or to learn about health resources, call the Maya Angelou Research Center on Minority Health at (336) 713-7578.

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