Black mental health needs a seat at the table
September is Suicide Awareness Month, and conversations regarding mental health have, naturally, spiked. It’s an aspect of every college student’s life that is often ignored, but lately, mental health has become the hottest topic in social circles and academia.
Still, some communities are failing to bring a seat to the table.
According to Emory University, more than 1,000 students die by suicide on campuses throughout the United States on average every year. While this number may be alarming, the causes fueling this statistic, such as depression, stress and loneliness, are commonplace.
Resources at the University of Houston, like Counseling and Psychological Services, allow students to discuss their experiences with counselors, whether their situation is new or chronic, in a safe and familiar environment.
There still exist sections of the population that do not feel comfortable discussing these issues. The anomaly resides in the black community. Black folks are not allowed at the table.
The black community very rarely — better yet, boldly refuses — to discuss mental health. It’s embarrassing to break bread with those people because the moment one of us pulls a chair up to that table, we are ostracized; our blackness is now up for inspection and speculation.
“People with a keen sense of black consciousness mistrust (mental health) institutions, so they refuse to seek treatment,” said psychology associate professor Rheeda Walker, whose research focuses, in part, on mental health in black communities.
The mistrust from the black community has historical context. Since the 1930s, black people have continuously been institutionalized at a higher rate than white Americans. This phenomenon is partially due to a lack of knowledge and resources in black communities to identify the signs of mental illness.
People fear reaching out for assistance or extending a hand to help because of the possible repercussion: institutionalization.
“People are afraid of being taken away and not coming back,” Walker said.
There is no doubt that people of African descent have persevered victoriously throughout the years in this country. Family, faith and, most importantly, strength are the pillars of our community.
The importance placed on strength in the black community originates from slavery, a time in which all we could rely on was ourselves and community to survive.
“Someone with a psychological problem would be perceived as weak, and that has carried over to today,” said Walker.
Strength is considered one of the admirable qualities of blacks, but this attribute is misplaced. Being strong does not equate to immunity to emotions, but sadly, that is how it is translated today.
“Strength as a façade is problematic because it shows others that no problem exists,” Walker said.
With 87 percent of African-Americans identifying as religious, it comes as no surprise that religion can hinder black people from reporting their struggles. Some are taught to attribute battles of mental health to religion. These obstacles are meant to test their relationship with God, and one can successfully overcome the situation through faith.
“Religion is helpful,” Walker said. “However, it is ideal to combine both psychology and religion.”
It is imperative that black folks realize that mental health is a universal condition that does not discriminate based on skin color. It is not a personal, innate weakness, but a psychologically-based issue.
It is not only ignorant but counterproductive to avoid addressing the parts of our community silently battling with mental health. Situations do not simply disappear because we willingly turn a blind eye.
To develop as a community, my community, we must start listening and take a seat at that table.
As Walker said: “These stories need to be told, but with a brown or black face attached to them.”
Alana Miller is an integrated communications junior and can be reached at [email protected]