By Anissa L. Moody, Ph.D
What you think you understand about African Americans and mental health may be dead wrong. This might be difficult to accept, particularly because African Americans have taken pride in the myths about our mental health. We believe that mental health is controlled by willpower, faith and even our race. Even experts align with these misguided beliefs, ultimately affecting the way we view mental health in our community and how we take care of ourselves.
Several national studies and leading researchers are now describing African-American mental health as more complex than once considered and, these patterns are critical to not only understanding mental health, but may also be the key to improving our overall well-being.
Looking at the current reports might help to demystify these false beliefs.
• Myth #1: African Americans are less likely to have mental health disorders than other ethnic minorities.
Though African Americans still only account for about 3% of the national population with serious mental illness, we now understand that numbers are not clear indicators of mental health in this population. Access to care, low help seeking, misdiagnosis, and delivery of care are all major factors affecting how minority mental health is accounted for and understood. Simply put, is an African-American male more likely to get a mental health diagnosis in the mental health system or the judicial system? Or, when your teenage daughter starts telling you she’s hearing voices do you share this information with her pediatrician or with her pastor?
• Myth #2: African Americans are “strong” and can handle stress.
Though only thirty-one percent of African-Americans believe that depression is a health problem, most would agree that physical ailments are drastically affecting our community. Dr. James S. Jackson, of the University of Michigan, has identified coping skills as key elements in understanding health disparities. According to Jackson, while behaviors like smoking, drug use, and consuming comfort foods may serve as negative coping skills in White Americans, these same behaviors may buffer African-Americans from developing mental health disorders consequently contributing to disproportionate rates of physical health problems like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. It seems self- medicating may play a significant role in helping African-Americans to function in stressful environments but clearly to the detriment of our health.
• Myth #3: “If our people made it through slavery then we can make it through anything.”
Most important to this new understanding is how we define race. The National Survey of American Life found that race alone is not a predictor of physical or mental health outcomes. Other factors like where you live, your income, and your education may play significant roles. For example, white Americans who experience similar life events to black Americans are just as likely to practice the same unhealthy coping skills, consequently presenting with similar health outcomes. From this perspective, it is easier to understand why some prevention programs fail at achieving their goals given that African Americans are a diverse group with a variety of cultural practices.
What does this all mean for you?
It seems we now have to consider mental health as inextricably linked to physical health and vice versa. This includes an honest assessment of coping skills and daily functioning. Questions that probe this connection are necessary to avoid possible “blind spots” in our evaluations of others and ourselves. Likewise, we can no longer look at race and make blanket assumptions about how someone should manage or take care of themselves. Going to church, while helpful to some, will not work for everyone.
Building on our inherent resilience is a good start. If you understand that the strength of a people depends on their ability to cultivate new skills and seek the support of others, then you are absolutely right!
Dr. Anissa Moody is a psychologist and educator in New York City. She has published papers and given talks on the practice of mental hygiene and the social constructions of race, health, and gender among many topics. By sharing her expertise on current topics, Dr. Moody aims to raise awareness of mental health and highlight the importance of mental hygiene in enriching people’s lives.