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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

Addressing mental health in the black community
Don't ignore warning signs of distress
Published Thursday, April 27, 2017 5:18 pm
by Kristina Houseworth

Mental illness does not discriminate.

African Americans share the same mental health issues as the rest of the population.  Yet, mental health remains a taboo topic of discussion within the black community. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

Fonda Bryant, a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Charlotte who was recently elected to the state board, addresses stigmas, suicide awareness, and other issues in relations to black mental health.  Bryant uses her personal story of overcoming severe depression and suicide attempts to bring awareness on mental illnesses.  Bryant, the daughter of the legendary rhythm and blues singer Johnnie Taylor, describes the moment when she contemplated suicide.

“It was 1995,” she said. “I was a pharmacy technician at a local hospital.  Though I don’t do drugs or alcohol, I just wanted to sleep and not have to worry anymore.  I planned to mix alcohol and muscle relaxers together.”

Before ingesting her lethal mixture, Bryant called her aunt who was more like a sister because how close they were in age.  Bryant told her aunt, “You can have my shoes.”  Immediately, she knew something was wrong and called authorities. It saved Bryant’s life.  

Over 41,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States.  The signs are always there said Bryant. While each mental illness has its own characteristics, some warning signs include marked personality change, excessive anxieties, prolonged depression, excessive anger, hostility, and abuse of alcohol or drugs.  Anxiety is the top mental health disorder followed by depression.  Statistics are loud but conversation is silent.

Common mental health disorders among African Americans include: anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder suicide among young males and posttraumatic stress disorder because African Americans are more likely to be victims of a violent crime.

The root of black mental health stems from the history of slavery in the United States as the dehumanization of African slaves was the initial trauma.

Dr. Joy DeGruy in her book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” indicates African Americans never healed from the scars of slavery, which included family separation, rape, violence, death and racism.  DeGruy coined the term post-traumatic slave syndrome in her research explaining the consequences multigenerational oppression and racism and explains the difference between PTSS and PTSD, which results from a single trauma experienced directly or indirectly.

“When we look at American chattel slavery, we are not talking about a single trauma; we’re talking about multiple traumas over lifetimes and over generations,” DeGruy writes.  

The black community is plagued with stigmas about mental health, which Bryant says is the reason people don’t seek help.  Some stigmas are so small or simple like the compelling urge for black men and women to never show fear, as it is interpreted as a sign of weakness. Other stigmas include racial disparities such as unemployment, poverty, being violent, criminals, and lazy. 65 percent of black people feel mental health is a weakness.

Lack of resources and life stressors are other issues to consider among mental health challenges. One out of four adults suffer and 1 out of 5 children suffer from a mental health condition. High poverty rates increase the likelihood of mental health issues.  The World Health Organization projects that depression will surpass cancer, AIDS and heart disease as the leading cause of death.

Access to affordable mental health treatment may be difficult, along with culturally-competent providers when seeking help. Only 3.7 percent of members in the American Psychiatric Association are African American.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Mobile Crisis Team: 704–566–3410
Suicide Prevention: 800-273-8255 (Talk)


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