Black History Month-Black Mental Health
February is Black History Month and the new year is moving quickly. Aside from the foolish world that we’re a part of, let’s take a moment to recognize and celebrate the significant role of African Americans and their outstanding contributions to the United States throughout past and present-day history.
Did you know? In 1926, African American historian and author Carter G. Woodson initiated the celebration of Black History Week, which, unsurprisingly, coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Civil War President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial, the week grew to encompass the entire month. Since then, every U.S. president has officially declared February as Black History Month.
The Significance of February
Many key events in African American history took place in February. Here are just a few:
W. E. B. Du Bois, civil rights leader and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born on Feb. 23, 1868.
The 15th Amendment was passed on Feb. 3, 1870.
The first African American senator, Hiram R. Revels took his oath of office on February 25, 1870.
The NAACP was founded on Feb. 12, 1909.
After being refused service, a group of African American college students remained in their seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960.
Malcolm X, a prominent Black Nationalism leader, was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.
While six points in history are far from capturing the African American struggle for freedom and justice, they are a snapshot of events and people, both known and anonymous, that helped transformed this nation. The process they established continues to challenge our nation’s perception of equality and social progress. Hence, the significance of Black History Month lies in looking back and understanding how far we have come to draw the strength and wisdom necessary to move forward.
The Case of Mental Illness
Mental illness, without any further distinction, affects one in four Americans. However, experiences of mental illness vary across cultures and there is a need for improved cultural awareness and corresponding competence in the health care and mental health workforce.
Social circumstances often serve as an indicator for the likelihood of developing a mental illness. African Americans are disproportionately more likely to experience these social circumstances. African Americans are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage in terms of accessing both medical and mental health care.
Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African Americans from accessing care, due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding.
African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though the latter may at times be necessary. Furthermore, the health care providers they seek may not be aware of this important aspect of African American culture.
The health system does not bear blame alone. Too many mentally ill African-Americans have been told to pray away mental illness, by well-meaning loved ones. African-Americans have always relied on religion as a survival strategy to cope with unspeakable injustice. But that can be maladaptive, causing further harm. We are not possessed by unseen forces. The irony is the first psychiatric hospitals were founded by African Muslims and Christians. We need to reclaim those traditions and educate our religious communities.
Mental illness is frequently stigmatized and misunderstood in the African American community. African Americans are much more likely to seek help though their primary care doctors as opposed to accessing specialty care.
Sensitivity to African American cultural differences, their unique views of mental illness and propensity towards developing certain mental illnesses, can improve African Americans’ treatment experiences and increase their utilization of mental health care services.
Other survival tactics involve “strong Black woman and mammy mythology,” which teaches Black girls and women to take care of everyone they know instead of attending to their own pain. Both philosophies are rooted in American slave culture. It is 2019. We must learn to engage in self-care, to build communities of recovery.
So, what can we ALL do now? “It takes a village,” as the old African proverb states. This is not a Black problem. Everybody hurts when any member of our society suffers. We all benefit when we design a health culture that operates from margin to center. We must mobilize for social justice to end racism. We must creatively invest in urban communities to create jobs, build infrastructure, protect affordable housing and design supportive schools.
We must advocate for systemic transformation in public health that incorporates more comprehensive research; prevention; early intervention; universal health coverage; training for healthcare professionals; and MORE CLUBHOUSES, especially in poor neighborhoods.
We must implement mental health education programs across Black communities. Finally, African-Americans must be willing to share our testimony to advocate for change. We must become peer workers, social workers, therapists and psycho-pharmacologists.
There can be no change if we don’t take our seats at the decision-making table.
Antonio P.D. Carriere, MPA
President – NAMI Louisiana