Let’s Talk About That: 3 Misconceptions About Mental Health in the Black Community

Oct 15, 2020

By Candace Cabbil

Many African Americans have heard or said something along the lines of, “Therapy is not for Black people.” Similarly, many have responded to suggestions from loved ones to seek professional aid with, “I’m not crazy,” “I’m not depressed,” “I’ll just pray about it,” or, perhaps the most popular answer, “I can’t afford it.” According to Rheeda Walker, PhD, in The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health, very few Black people feel that they have someone reliable and trustworthy to call within the Black community, resulting in the interplay of limited knowledge, unexpressed pain, stigma, and a lack of access to care that conspires to keep many families from overcoming unnecessary cycles of hurt.

What I have personally tried to do as a member of the Black community is to model mental health best practices; not just by seeking professional mental health help, but also by serving my community as a mental health practitioner. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss the most prevalent myths about mental health within the Black community and offer some suggestions for Black people who are considering seeking professional care for themselves.

  1. Therapy or professional mental health support is not for Black people.

One reason for the continued belief in this myth is that when Black people seek professional mental health support, they often have experiences with mental health professionals who do not look like them nor have shared community experiences. This can lead them to conclude that that therapy is not for Black people. Because less than 2 percent of American Psychological Association members are Black, some members of the Black community worry that non-Black mental health practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat their specific issues.

It is understandable that Black people distrust the medical and mental health communities, given the challenges they face in seeking care today and considering that both fields have been weaponized against Black people. Finding a mental health practitioner who understands those fears creates a foundation of trust  that can make a significant difference. Having a Black mental health professional may help you feel as though you are working with your mental health practitioner with a shared understanding of the culture that you don’t have to stop and explain. This type of therapeutic environment can offer you the freedom to be your authentic self during the session. 

This type of care, however, cannot be received or utilized if the idea that mental health support is not for Black people persists. By recognizing when we need help, we can be proactive in seeking  assistance from professionals who look like us and have shared cultural experiences. If you have difficulty finding a mental health practitioner who looks like you, you can still seek a provider with specialized, culturally competent training.

  1. Therapy is only for those who are severely mentally ill.

Research suggests that Black people are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health issues, such as Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. Young Black adults (ages 18-25) deal with  higher rates of mental health problems, but receive  mental health services at lower rates than their young white adult counterparts, as well as older Black adults. 

Historically, there has been difficulty acknowledging psychological issues within the Black community. The most frequently used coping mechanisms have been religious methods, pastoral care, and prayer. A negative stereotype of instability as well as attitudes of rejection toward people  with mental health issues may lead people within the Black community to believe that  mental illness is a personal weakness.

Given that this community exists at the intersections of classism, racism, and health inequity, mental health issues for Black people are often exacerbated and care is mostly unavailable, further compounding the mental health disparities in the Black community are issues related to economic insecurity, and the associated experiences of violence and criminal injustice.

To reiterate, if you are having mental health issues, you are not “crazy.” What you are experiencing is real. You may be depressed or anxious, and you may lack the language to describe what you’re feeling. Prayer can help–studies have shown the many benefits that religion and spirituality can have for psychological fortitude and emotional well-being; but it’s also okay to talk to a mental health professional. It is normal to occasionally feel unhappy or dissatisfied with life, especially surrounding stressful events, but if  dissatisfaction and unhappiness become your norm for weeks, months, or years, you may benefit from speaking  with a mental health professional. Keep in mind that the Black community has a long history of social change and that prioritizing mental health is not a sign of weakness, but an act of strength.

  1. Therapy is too expensive.

More research is required to understand all the factors associated with Black Americans’ underutilization of mental health care. Still, one barrier to care  is clear: less access to adequate insurance and the significant financial burden of treatment among Black individuals. Disparities in access to mental health care have persisted over time, and health care costs and prohibitive insurance coverage make it challenging for low-income individuals to access needed treatment. This has a significant impact on the Black community, which has the lowest rates of health care insurance of any ethnic group.

Here are some tips for accessing free and low-cost mental health care:

  1. Check with your employer or insurance provider for free or low-cost mental health services. For example, Lyra is a special mental health benefit some companies provide to their employees as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which makes access to mental health care easier, more affordable, and even free, in many cases.
  2. If needed, ask a therapist or other mental health provider if they can work with you at a discounted rate or on a sliding scale, an agreed fee amount based on your situation or condition.
  3. Look for online resources, using programs such as Mental Health America (MHA) and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which offers free mental health resources year-round. NAMI has also published a list of 13 mental health resources specifically for Black people.

According to Jameta N. Barlow, a community health psychologist and assistant professor at George Washington University,  healing looks different for us, and Black people have a long history of resilience and creating “healing spaces” over the last century. While the current global pandemic makes this difficult beyond digital platforms, Barlow encourages Black people to find “community” with one another.

Life has not been forgiving for Black people in the United States. Addressing the top mental health myths and challenges in the Black community and  knowing the facts to counter those myths can help empower Black people to prioritize  their mental health. 

CONTACT US

If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.

For employers who want to learn more about how Lyra’s enhanced EAP addresses network adequacy and quality issues, download our whitepaper on quality or get in touch.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Candace is a Lyra mental health coach who has served as an external OD consultant who has consulted companies in Singapore, South Africa, The Netherlands, and Bermuda with an international team of consultants.  She graduated with a BS in Health Care Management from the University of Alabama, an MS in Natural Health and Doctor of Naturopathy (ND) from Clayton College of Natural Health, and an MS in Organization Development from American University/National Training Laboratory (AU/NTL).  Candace holds certificates in Gestalt International Organization Systems Development (IOSD) and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) qualifying training.