Black History Month: A Historic Call for Action

Feb. 12, 2014

The New Year is moving quickly and February is already nearly half way through. Aside from the arctic weather conditions, the heart-shaped balloons and the Sochi Olympics, this month is a very unique time to recognize and celebrate the significant role of African Americans and their outstanding contributions to the United States throughout history.

In 1926, African American historian and author Carter G. Woodson initiated the celebration of Black History Week, which, unsurprisingly, coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial, the week grew to encompass the entire month. Since then, every U.S. president has officially declared February as Black History Month.

The Significance of February

Many key events in African American history  took place in February. Here are just a few:

  • W. E. B. Du Bois, civil rights leader and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born on Feb. 23, 1868.
  • The 15th Amendment was passed on Feb. 3, 1870.
  • The first African American senator, Hiram R. Revels took his oath of office on February 25, 1870.
  • The NAACP was founded on Feb. 12, 1909.
  • After being refused service, a group of African American college students remained in their seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960.
  • Malcolm X, a prominent Black Nationalism leader, was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.

While six points in history are far from capturing the African American struggle for freedom and justice, they are a snapshot of events and people, both known and anonymous, that helped transformed this nation. The process they established continues to challenge our nation’s perception of equality and social progress. Hence, the significance of Black History Month lies in looking back and understanding how far we have come to draw the strength and wisdom necessary to move forward.

The Case of Mental Illness

Mental illness, without any further distinction, affects one in four Americans. However, experiences of mental illness vary across cultures and there is a need for improved cultural awareness and corresponding competence in the health care and mental health workforce.

  • Social circumstances often serve as an indicator for the likelihood of developing a mental illness. African Americans are disproportionately more likely to experience these social circumstances.
  • African Americans are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage in terms of accessing both medical and mental health care.
  • Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African Americans from accessing care, due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding.
  • African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though the latter may at times be necessary. Furthermore, the health care providers they seek may not be aware of this important aspect of African American culture.
  • Mental illness is frequently stigmatized and misunderstood in the African American community. African Americans are much more likely to seek help though their primary care doctors as opposed to accessing specialty care.

Sensitivity to African American cultural differences, their unique views of mental illness and propensity towards developing certain mental illnesses, can improve African Americans’ treatment experiences and increase their utilization of mental health care services. To learn more, please visit NAMI’s African American Resources page.

How You Can Become the Change Starting Today

Observe African American History Month proactively.   

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