Mental health is a concern all Americans share regardless of age, race, religion, gender or economic status. In fact, one in four Americans will experience a behavioral health disorder in any given year. However, there are factors that can increase the vulnerability to and severity of mental health disorders in the African American population and decrease their likelihood of seeking and receiving adequate treatment.
According to Mental Health America, racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of Black/African Americans. Attitudes of rejection and negative stereotypes have decreased, but continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences. Historical and contemporary instances of negative treatment have created an aura of mistrust of authorities who are often seen as not having the best interest of the African Americans in mind.
Religious beliefs also contribute to the problem. Some African Americans even see mental illness as a punishment from God. Although religious beliefs, family and community can be a great source of emotional support and stress relief, they can also be a barrier to receiving needed professional medical or therapeutic treatment. In fact, faith communities not educated about mental health and support methods for individual and families can become a source of distress instead of a form of relief.
Mental illness can strike people of any economic status not just those in the lower range. But, the stressors that can accompany poverty – hunger, homelessness, lack of other basic needs or an inability to find jobs or afford treatment – can be contributing factors. As of 2014, the poverty rate for African Americans was 26.2 percent according to the U.S. Census Bureau data. Recently it has been recognized that poverty may contribute to the onset of mental illness.
Violence can also be a factor in mental illness among African Americans. African Americans of all ages are more likely to witness or be victims of serious violent crimes. Exposure to violent crimes can lead to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
There seems to be no single answer to resolving these complex issues but education and awareness of mental health needs in the African American community is a good place to start.