Mental health conditions don’t discriminate, yet Black people and people of color are at higher risk of experiencing a mental health condition, having a mental health condition go undetected, and not receiving adequate treatment due to racial disparities and deep-rooted systemic racism woven throughout the fabric of American history. “Although anyone can develop a mental health problem, African Americans sometimes experience more severe forms of mental health conditions due to unmet needs and other barriers,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found. Additionally, Black people are 10 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress due to socioeconomic disparities, with their mental health outcomes expected to be worse than those who have access and the necessary resources to seek mental health support.
Long story short, the foundation of American society was never intended for Black people to succeed. This is evident when we look at the history of wealth, employment, education, criminal justice, housing, surveillance, and healthcare within the Black community.
If nearly one in five adults in the US live with a mental illness why aren’t there resources to help combat this continuously growing issue, especially in Black and brown communities? The answer is complex yet simple: racial and ethnic disparities in mental health care. Let’s examine in greater depth at the reasons for these disparities.
Housing, employment, education levels, and access to quality healthcare are all interrelated when it comes to barriers preventing Black people from receiving quality and necessary mental health care. It’s a trickle-down effect — structural racism in the US housing system, such as redlining, has for decades led to racial disparities in the building of wealth. The displacement of Black communities strips Black people from building both the wealth and financial stability that owning property and access to affordable rental housing provides. Not only are they stripped from the opportunity to create financial wealth, but these communities also become neglected and under-resourced when it comes to both quality of and access to education, employment, transportation, food sources, and healthcare.
A Distrust of the Healthcare System
For hundreds of years, Black bodies have been experimented on, advancing medicine without concern of the short- and long-term impact it would have on Black people. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male is a prime example of why Black people have difficulty putting trust in healthcare professionals. Fast forward a few decades and the distrust grows. A 2016 study found that Black people’s pain isn’t taken seriously by doctors, they often have longer wait times when seeking medical attention, and once they receive attention, physicians spend less time with Black patients than white patients. Then there’s the staggering fact that, although the U.S. is the world’s most developed country, non-Hispanic Black women are 3.2 times more likely to perish from a pregnancy-related death than their white peers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. This despite the fact that most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.
Trust is fundamental when it comes to the patient-doctor relationship, but due to the ongoing history of medical mistreatment of Black people, seeking medical attention is often seen as a matter of life or, just as likely, death in the Black community.
There Aren’t Enough Culturally Competent Therapists
Once Black people have navigated barriers like finances and proximity and finally get into the therapist’s room, they’re often faced with culturally incompetent therapists. It’s imperative that Black people feel connected to their therapist in order to build trust but to also ensure that they’re receiving the proper treatment to improve their well-being.
“Conscious or unconscious bias from providers result in misdiagnosis and poorer quality of care for African Americans,” according to NAMI. And, when Black people are often misdiagnosed at a disproportionate rate for schizophrenia, it’s important to have an advocate in the room who can ensure a proper diagnosis, treatment, and care.
A good place to start when looking for a culturally competent provider is to ask your potential provider if they have experience treating African American people, if they’ve received training when it comes to cultural competence and the mental health of non-white people, and how both your cultural background and theirs will impact your treatment.
What the Future of Mental Health Treatment For Black People Should Look Like
Erasing the stigma that surrounds mental health is a critical step to empowering Black people to seek help if they’re experiencing a mental health condition. Additionally, marginalized communities need structures in place, such as wellness centers, to ease the various barriers that prohibit them from receiving treatment. Prerequisite training for those in medical professions, specifically mental health fields, should also be mandatory to ensure that Black people are not misdiagnosed or not taken seriously. There also needs to be greater representation and diversity of professionals in the mental health field.
Having someone who understands your background and who you are as an individual, before you begin to share your lived experiences, will help you feel more comfortable opening up and sharing your experiences. It will allow for an efficient treatment plan to improve your overall well-being and empower you to thrive in every aspect of life.