This article was co-written with Leslie Garcia, a licensed clinical social worker, certified life coach and the founder of Counseling Space, a life enhancement/enrichment practice that improves the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities through personal advocacy, counseling, and education. The practice has a unique focus on individuals and families from multicultural backgrounds, and specialize in culturally aware and culturally competent-based services.
Mental health care has made incredible leaps over the course of the last century. From diagnosis to treatment, the science of mental health has become both more humane and effective than it has ever been. With these advances, the stigma of mental illness that stemmed from the days of institutionalization has largely become a thing of the past.
It's no secret that when it comes to health care in general, people of color notoriously receive a different level of care. There have been a variety of studies that show that the level and quality of care received by African Americans is often reduced because of stereotypes that present them as less human than whites. Even when African Americans and Latinos do find appropriate care, studies find that they take advantage for shorter time spans than their white counterparts. African Americans are also more likely to receive care in a psychiatric ER than in an inpatient facility.
In similar fashion stigmas about mental health have kept many African Americans from seeking the help that they need, often with deadly results as mental illness is viewed as a "white problem." It is the downside of a legacy that has made us so self-reliant that the notion of needing medical treatment is a sign of weakness. Especially for an ailment that isn't physical. For women of color, these views of strength and frailty are compounded by their womanhood.
Many of my clients have never sought mental health services in the past. Many knew that they needed services at least a year prior to meeting me. The main barrier is the stigma in the culture, it's never discussed openly. The challenges while seeking care, was the difficulty finding bilingual and/or culturally competent providers." -- Leslie Garcia
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly two-thirds of Americans with a diagnosable mental illness don't seek treatment. For many, their aversion to therapy lies in the stigma that comes with being labeled as "crazy." The stigma potentially leading to suicide and severe mental health conditions that may be disability.
"Obstacles... adversity has made me strong. Having things happen in my life that make me want to give up or doubt my abilities, and then getting through it is encouraging,"
These are the words of Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls, a project created to celebrate darker skin complexions and combat colorism. Karyn was known for her inspirational quotes and comments exhorting young women of color to be proud of themselves. In 2014, at the age of 22, Karyn died by suicide. It is believed that Karyn suffered from depression and found the recent loss of her mother too much. Which begs the question, when does strength in facing obstacles simply become a matter of ignoring pain and denying assistance?
One of the greatest myths about mental illness is that they are a byproduct of character flaws and weakness. Many believe that mental illness is something that can be self diagnosed and and and self managed. "Why can't you just snap out of it?" The truth is while the cause of mental illness isn't fully known indications point to a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors, not character flaws.
There are a number of reasons why minorities have trouble seeking and finding mental health support including the cultural stigma of admitting that you need mental support, a lack of culturally competent care, and bias against minorities seeking care. There is also the problem self-misdiagnosis which can often result in the assumption of a mental health issue instead of what may be an easily treatable physical ailment.
Ultimately the responsibility to change how we as a culture view and address mental health lies in us all. Those who are actively addressing their mental health issues can be a great encouragement to those who may be afraid to open up to friends and family about their issues. Putting a personal face on mental health can greatly shift some of the preconceived notions of what mental health issues look like.
"Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure." ― Lucille Clifton