We Need to Normalize Mental Health Care in the Black Community

We Need to Normalize Mental Health Care in the Black Community

July 30, 20182 min read

I am a PhD, a book author, a professor at USC. I work with organizations to create healthier and happier workplaces by reducing stress and building emotional resilience. And yet, until very recently, I have been reluctant to share my own story.

It is a story of mental illness, recovery and resilience, a story of bipolar disorder. And I have been hesitant to share it because I did not want to experience the stigma associated with mental illness.

I used to joke that I didn’t want to be the embodiment of “the nutty professor,” but the joke stopped being funny when the stigma against mental illness -- particularly in the black community -- negatively impacted my professional and personal life. In previous roles, I learned that it wasn’t acceptable for me to have a mental illness in my professional setting, and that it definitely was not okay to talk about it. My competence was questioned, even though I no longer had symptoms and was given a clean bill of health from my psychiatrist, and I was asked to not ‘out’ myself as having bipolar disorder to my students. That is why I’m sharing my story publicly: I hope to inspire my students to fight their way through their own mental health challenges.

Even with all my degrees, even with my understanding of the healthcare system, finding affordable and accessible mental health services has often been a challenge for me. Even though I know what it’s like to have supportive family, friends and colleagues, and a fantastic healthcare team, I have struggled. These experiences have inspired my activism and advocacy for a world where using mental health services is no different than getting care for any other illness.

Let me start with a little-known statistic: African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, according to the Office of Minority Health. And yet: only about 25 percent of African Americans seek mental health care as compared to 40 percent of whites, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The reasons for this discrepancy are plentiful: lack of health insurance, distrust of mental health care system, misdiagnosis of symptoms, lack of cultural competence, and stigma. Addressing these challenges for African Americans entails three parts: taking care of our mental health should be acceptable, accessible and affordable.

Allow me to explain.

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