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By Bethany Whittaker

To begin the conversation about Black mental health, we must unpack the ways historical and systemic oppression contributes to and compounds mental health issues faced by Black folks, as well as creates barriers for accessing care.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress, yet are less likely to seek treatment.

The many layers to the stigma of mental health in the Black community are due to generational trauma from deep-rooted racism and systemic oppression, which has manifested into a survivalist mentality where pain is masked behind enduring strength.

“There’s a narrative of strength that no matter what happens in our lives, we’re supposed to put our chin up and keep moving forward,” said Portia Jackson Preston, professor of Public Health.

To honor the resilience of the Black community and the importance of addressing mental illness, we breakdown how Black history factors into Black mental health, and how we can work toward affirmation and healing.

Distrust Of Medical Institutions and State Violence

Within the Black community lies a visceral mistrust of the medical establishment. Historically, Black folks have been exploited and exposed to violence by the U.S. government and medical community through the coerced sterilization of federal eugenics programs and the unethical Tuskegee Study that used black lives and bodies in the name of medical advancement. 

Additionally, anti-blackness and the criminalization of Black behavior often result in higher rates of misdiagnosis or incarceration. Black folks in America are exposed to inflated rates of State violence in their communities. Post-traumatic stress disorder related to police brutality often gets mislabeled as rage and exposes the community to further violence.

Present-day discrimination also serves as a barrier to Black mental health care where there is a dearth of Black mental health professionals in the field. Acknowledged and unacknowledged bias in diagnosis and a lack of cultural competency by care providers produce a system of inadequate treatment to effectively address the Black experience in dealing with racism on a daily basis.

Dealing With Daily Discrimination

Black people deal with racism and microaggressions each day on top of balancing their personal, professional, and academic lives. This is exacerbated in higher education where Black students, faculty, and staff navigate institutions that lack the infrastructure to support their success and well-being.

Black students often feel the need to “code switch” in order to feel comfortable in classes and on campus.

“I feel like I can’t be myself,” said Mykayla Miller, a Chemistry major at CSUF. “It hurts to feel as if who I am isn’t accepted, so you start second guessing yourself. I have to put on a face in front of my peers in the name of acceptance—I shouldn’t have to do that.” 

Microaggressions such as the N word watermarked on a flyer by fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa in fall 2019 and daily instances of casual and blatant racism from professors and peers add to increased rates of depression and anxiety for Black students in higher education.

Economic Disparity

Economic inequity is a barrier to mental health care and another stressor contributing to mental struggles experienced by the Black community.

Mental illness isn’t exclusive to individuals of lower economic status. However, the stress from grappling with hunger, homelessness, a lack of basic needs, and the inability to find work or afford medical treatment intensify its toll on Black folks, who disproportionately come from lower socio-economic backgrounds due to a legacy of discriminatory economic policies throughout history. 

“When we as Black people are not in a position to take care of ourselves properly due to financial barriers, we tend to suffer from diseases like mental illness that are treatable if we could just get access,” said Jackson Preston. 

Toward Affirmation and Healing

Talking about Black mental health to unpack its stigma aids as a starting point in normalizing the topic. Intentional effort toward shifting the narrative of how mental health is discussed and addressing systemic obstacles to access and quality care can push forth meaningful change to transform healing in the Black community.