When It Comes to Getting Help, Culture Counts

FEB. 20, 2015

A friend of mine once told me, “Black people don’t get depressed.”

Even within my own family, mental distress was perceived as a weakness, something to “snap out of” or “get over.” I didn’t think that there was anyone who would understand my experiences and so I was afraid to ask for help. I felt hopeless and alone, ashamed that I wasn’t strong enough to shoulder life’s difficulties.

Many believe that mental illness only affects others—other people, other families, other ethnic groups. In reality, mental illness affects indiscriminately. One in five adults in America experience symptoms of a mental health condition each year. Although the rates of mental health conditions are similar between different cultural groups, the impact is not. But the truth is, when it comes to mental illness, culture counts.

Stigma is a big reason why many people belonging to a minority group do not receive the psychiatric treatment they need. Individuals from racial and ethnic communities with mental health symptoms experience vastly different, and sometimes disastrous, results. For example, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.​ We are also more likely to receive a misdiagnosis.   

The lack of access to mental health information and services—or access to only inferior information and services—can compel African Americans to mask or ignore their issues. Add to that the fact that African Americans face discrimination and biased attitudes in other spheres, including other areas of the health care system, it’s no wonder silence and stigma surround mental health in this community.

Considering the huge costs associated with untreated mental illness, this gap needs to be addressed. Improving mental health wellness in diverse communities means fighting stigma while increasing both awareness of recovery and access to culturally competent services, education and support.

Growing up, I almost never encountered positive portrayals or shining examples of African Americans with mental health conditions—not on television or in movies, not at the schools I attended, not in the books I read. What I wish I’d know then, what I know to be true now, is that if you have a mental health condition you are not alone.

Depression and other mental disorders are extremely common. There should be no shame in seeking help; social and psychological supports and services can truly be salvation. It doesn’t matter what you look like, there are millions of people who are facing similar problems. And millions—like me—find their way to recovery and a path back to hope.


MAR, 03, 2015 12:44:48 PM
Jillian Crosby
Great read! I am African American and the stigma is real. I have heard "get over it" "pray" and more comments throughout my journey and others. Eye opening read.

FEB, 28, 2015 04:15:21 PM
Debra Sullivan
My name is Debra Sullivan and I am an African-American woman affected by a mental health condition and I've seen the lack of encouragement our culture gives to those affected by mental illness. In the number of support groups I've attended we're scarce as clients and staff workers. We need a light to shine upon our communities to let them know that it's okay to disclose mental health issues in your household because when one suffers, we all suffer. It takes a village to help support mental health recovery! Our people have suffered enough injustice amongst ourselves, we need to stop putting up barriers and roadblocks to our own people. None of it is their own doing so their recovery should be a tribal effort in certain terms.
Thank you for a platform to speak out about our mental health discriminatory struggle.
Debra Sullivan

FEB, 28, 2015 10:32:19 AM
donald worth
I find that for the most part African American people are very poorly educated about mental health, and very fearful of its implications

FEB, 27, 2015 02:01:56 PM
William H.Jones
I was able to attend the webinar. I work as Certified Peer Support for a mental; agency. Can you plus give some information that I can take to the Black Community on mental health and stigma. I know that that Black Community has its stigma about mental health as stated. What can I do to help our Black Community to come out the 50"s and 60's mind set. What can I do? Does Nami have a literature that I can use to address these issues in a Positive Presentation! I can be reached at Recovery Inst. of Southwest Michigan in Kalamazoo, MI. If you an contact me at 269-342-6725. Ask for Bill Jones of the Living in Recovery Team. It is a time for the Black Community to become Empowered about Life's Issues: Mental Health and Stigma. in the Black Community.

FEB, 26, 2015 08:14:28 PM
Charlene Logan, Chairman and founder of Peer-To-Peer Empowerment Group
I addressed this issue before. Why NAMI find it necessary to identify African Americans in bold lettering leaves me with an impression that representatives are unaware as to how to reach the community at large. Keep in mind we are among a group of many minorities with various culture believes, and yes stigmas are strong within communities. However, please do not use the "strike" rule. To my knowledge and experience, you are dealing with an historical issue, "Taboos", and unfortunately I'm sure you are aware of myths minorities named "taboos" This myth has an overbearing strong-hold and associated with "demonic demons" within several minority communities. This misguided information, is ministered to people, pass through generation, and old "folk stories". In order to break the silence, we need to show the face of minorities who managed to live with his/her condition, surviving pass addictions and ones sexual preference is not a factor in being loved. In order to discover how to break this strong hold, we must first go within the communities, and a body of individuals who represent the targeted communities. We have minorities who are dealing with substance abuse, sexual preference issues, shunned by members of thr choice of worshipped, and family members who refuse to acknowledge nor accept thr son or daughter need for help. Also, being properly diagnosed, and medicated will take some time. If this is made known initially we may reduce the number of person who will either stop, or at the very least become extremely discourage. In my opinion it is rare to be properly diagnosed upon the person initial stage. Therefore, we have much work to do, but I know it can be done.

FEB, 26, 2015 06:39:38 PM
JerNasia Nakia Martin
Mental illness can affect any race or culture. Getting the right help is the result.

FEB, 26, 2015 02:56:59 PM
Lisa Allen
I would like to learn more regarding multicultural education

FEB, 26, 2015 12:46:25 PM
I totally agree with the statement about stigma being a reason why some do not receive the treatment they need. The stigma associated with mental illness in my community is real. My experience as an African-American child was to watch the mentally ill be horribly ridiculed. Children of course learned how to ridicule others from watching adults and older teens.

I think most people have no clue how mentally ill people who live alone struggling so hard to survive and make it to the next day. They are marked with a badge of shame and treated as if they are not deserving of respect or dignity, as if they are a throw away. I notice this behavior even in so-called close knit families. This makes sick people isolate more, which I believe leads to them becoming more ill and hopeless. In their despair some people try to find their own way back to mental wellness, but some don't make it. It really is a sad and lonely existence. We should find ways to end the stigma associated with all mental illnesses and present positive images of mentally ill people contributing to society and being happy.

FEB, 26, 2015 12:37:34 AM
MacArthur Gilmer M.S.,L.P.C
Mr. Lee, I respectfully disagree with parts of your statement. I agree that when seeking treatment, a practioner from any culture can provide adequate care. However, I feel that a practioner from the same culture as the patient can better relate to that patient , because he/she has experienced the same type of negative feed back from their own family and peers. This is analogous to a middle school student who is being bullied or teased by his classmates, teachers and parents can provide a certain level of acceptance, but what help the child most(other than self acceptance) is to be accepted by his peers.

FEB, 25, 2015 09:50:15 PM
Lynn Magnuson
I like the ideas and culture of the Native Americans myself. One thing they do is to convene "healing circles" (I think that's the right term) for those who are troubled mentally or spiritually, and there is little or no stigma for having such troubles either. I am Native American (mixed with a few other ethnicities) and learned of this studying the culture.

FEB, 25, 2015 08:32:51 PM
jill varrichio
I lost my only child, due to severe bipolar disease. How can anyone further stigmatize mental illness?. It isn't about race, or ethnicity, or class...people who have these disorders, from any social,economic, or racial background, are being ignored. Cast aside.

FEB, 25, 2015 01:47:05 AM
Charles Lee, Jr
While it's not my desire to correct, debate, or change someone's idea of what types of support they believe themselves to need, it's difficult for me to agree with the notion of cultures being helpful when cultures do the most amount of stigmatizing, bullying and peer pressuring that lends a great deal of damage to more creative people, causing emotional and mental health difficulties early on.

Expanding my personal education about other cultures, on the other hand, presented me with a broader, less isolated view of my human society of creative free wills.

Cultures do a lot to instill a personal sense of confidence and self esteem, but when cultures become bullying vacuums, a personal emotional intelligence will suffer greatly from reaching their highest and most contributing potential.

Many people find their greatest recovery by reaching outside of cultures into a surrogate family or substitute culture that embraces them for the creative imagination we all are.

Thank You, and Journey Well

Charles (Kolt4JC)
Peer Specialist and Creativity Minister/Activist

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