Unmasking the Silent Crisis: Why Black Mental Health Matters
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Unfortunately, mental health is often overlooked in our community. Black mental health continues to be stigmatized and shelved at a time when it should be of the uttermost importance. With this month, May, being recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month, it is our duty at this time and beyond to address the issue at hand and discuss how we can work to create actionable solutions for those most in need. The impact of racial trauma, systemic inequality, and lack of access to quality mental health services exacerbates mental health issues within our community, making open discourse and enhanced support essential and a societal imperative.
Racism and systemic discrimination have a profound impact on mental health. According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2016), “Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress, can result from major experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of an accumulation of many small occurrences, termed ‘microaggressions’.” Likewise, these experiences invariably contribute to heightened stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the Black and Brown community.
Our community also contends with an unfortunate legacy of mistrusting the healthcare system. Historical episodes like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment have sown deep-seated suspicion where Doctors misled infected Black men and denied them treatment, have sown deep-seated distrust. This mistrust, combined with systemic barriers, such as the scarcity of Black mental health professionals and the high cost of mental health services, has further impeded access to care. A 2015 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report revealed that only about a quarter of Black people who needed mental health care received it.
The stigma associated with mental illness within the Black community further hinders seeking help. Medical professionals who do not have experience with mental illness in the Black community often misdiagnose mental health issues, leading to their trivialization or denial. This cultural stigma can prevent medical professionals from recognizing symptoms and seeking timely assistance. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that suicide was the third leading cause of death, respectively, for Blacks or African Americans, ages 15 to 24, with this rate being even higher for Black men.
Addressing these issues requires multifaceted strategies, beginning with robust discourse about Black mental health. Encouraging conversation in homes, schools, and public forums can demystify mental health, reducing stigma and encouraging individuals to seek help. In our recent podcast series known as “Black Wealth Attainment And Retention Program” (also known as BWAARP, sponsored by the Los Angeles Urban League and Parkside EDC), “The Wealthy Mind and Body,” we had the opportunity to discuss how crucial overall wellness is to overall success. We understand that for all we hope to achieve, none of it will be possible if we don’t have a healthy body and mind.
Increased representation in the mental health field can also improve trust and cultural competence in the Asian, Black, and Brown communities. The American Psychiatric Association found that Black psychiatrists represented just 2% of all psychiatrists. By amplifying diversity within the field, we can ensure that the services provided are culturally sensitive and attuned to the unique experiences of Black individuals.
There is nothing wrong with needing and seeking mental health aid; the only thing we can do wrong in this most urgent need is to do nothing at all.
Policy interventions are also vital. Policymakers must ensure affordable access to mental health services and enforce laws against discrimination in healthcare. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which requires health insurers to cover mental health and addiction treatment to the same extent as physical health, is a positive step that needs robust enforcement.
Mental health in the Black community is a silent crisis that we can no longer afford to ignore. It is a call to action for all segments of society — from individuals to institutions — to contribute to a culture that promotes mental well-being for everyone. We at the Los Angeles Urban League encourage you and your loved ones to support those who need to be heard, seen, and guided forward in receiving the care that is deserved and overdue. There is nothing wrong with needing and seeking mental health aid; the only thing we can do wrong in this most urgent need is to do nothing at all.
American Psychological Association. (2016). "Race and Stress." https://www.apa.org/topics/race-stress
Williams, D. R., & Williams-Morris, R. (2000). "Racism and mental health: the African American experience." Ethnicity & health, 5(3-4), 243-268.
Alsan, M., & Wanamaker, M. (2018). "Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men." The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(1), 407-455.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). "Racial