July 31, 2019

By Lorenzo Lewis

While there may be a lot of awareness and research for cancer and other physical health conditions, we struggle as a nation when it comes to prioritizing mental health. And that especially applies to the mental health of African Americans.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, African Americans are: 

  • Less likely to receive guideline-consistent care 
  • Less frequently included in research 
  • More likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists)

Only one in three African Americans who need mental health care services receives it. Plaguing issues of poverty, mass incarceration and financial hardships have increased mental illness and suicide in the African American community.According to the Office of Minority Health, “Adult African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.” Social-economic issues make it difficult for those living in these circumstances, but what can we do as individuals to make our community better? 
We can expand our voices and services into our community to reduce critical issues—and we can reduce stigma in our culture and community. Here are a few things you can do as a person of color to reduce stigma: 

Start the conversation about mental health with your peers, loved ones and those close to you. There may be some hesitation at first, but figure out creative ways of mentioning the words “mental health” while in their company. You can also embrace your influence in spaces where you are received well and strike the conversation about mental health. People may not react right away, but your intent will go far. 
Show compassion. If you have a loved one or know someone who could potentially be struggling, they may be ashamed of speaking about it. Being present and showing your compassion will go far. You can do this by asking how they’re doing and then actively listen to them. If they open up and tell you they’ve been struggling, you can validate their emotions and what they are going through. This may help them feel comfortable opening up to you more. Showing compassion increases the level of trust and communication in any relationship. 
Do not be judgmental: Language matters. Some members of the black community can be judgmental due to historical and on-going trauma. However, it’s important not to be judgmental and refrain from using language that may be harmful to others. For example, “You are strong. You don’t need a therapist.” Or “We are black and made it through slavery, so we can handle our own mental health.” Examples like these can prevent people from being open about their mental health or seeking professional care. 
Start advocating. Write down all the things that make you upset, for example, media, police brutality, poor perception/narrative of African Americans. Begin to process your feelings with a close friend that you trust or a support group—and use this is as a base for advocacy efforts. There are so many ways to advocate: sharing your story, spreading awareness about cultural competency or helping someone you know find helpful resources. People with lived experience are very effective advocates and can help so many people around them while also investing in their own mental health.
Embrace your voice. In the black community, more people promoting solidarity are talking about their struggles publicly, but we need more people to share experiences. We are at our best when using human connection and connectivity. Share your story.
If we start addressing issues from a good place, we become powerful and create more momentum to experience wellness. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”We must live and show up to be the light.

Lorenzo Lewis is a mental health advocate and founder of The Confess Project, an initiative that confronts the stigma around mental health for men and boys of color. He was born in prison to an incarcerated mother and almost re-entered the system of mass incarceration at age 17.  Lorenzo has spread his message to thousands across the country, modeling resiliency and vulnerability. Learn more about Lorenzo and The Confess Project here: www.lorenzoplewis.comwww.theconfessproject.com

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