July 01, 2015

By Natalia Rawls

African Americans at the NAMI National Convention

Before I started as an intern at NAMI, I had never heard of Bebe Moore Campbell or even National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (NMMHAM). When I first heard about the month, I was puzzled and filled with questions. In particular, I wondered: Why is there a need for a minority mental health awareness month, since mental health conditions affect your brain and not your skin color?

I was admittedly reluctant to voice my confusion because I did not want to appear ignorant or offensive.

Luckily, my supervisor was very receptive and she wasn’t offended by my questions at all. Living with a mental health condition is challenging for everyone, regardless of their background. But in addition to brain chemistry, culture, race and ethnicity influence mental health rates, attitudes and treatment.

I consider myself to be a well-informed African American woman, and even I wasn’t aware of the many barriers that exist in communities similar to mine that make it more challenging to address and treat mental health conditions.

I found out that people in diverse communities are less likely to use mental health services. When they do, they often receive poorer quality of care, making their experiences even more alarming.

After that conversation, I decided to do my own research on mental health in diverse communities. Some of the reasons I found for people not using mental health services and getting worse care included: 

  • Higher levels of stigma.
  • Less access to treatment.
  • Lack of mental health literacy and information.
  • A culturally insensitive health care system.
  • Bias and discrimination in treatment settings.
  • Lack of access to health insurance.

As a result, I realized that this issue affects me more than I ever imagined. I decided to come up with a list of why National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month matters to me:

  1. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask questions about mental health and awareness in diverse communities.
  2. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge and attempt to change the reality that multicultural communities face mental health disparities.
  3. It reminds those who are affected by a mental health condition that they are not alone and that there is hope.
  4. It creates a safe space to share our stories and eliminate stigma.

Having learned more about multicultural mental health, I now feel capable of starting—and continuing—the conversation surrounding it. For those of you (like me a few weeks ago) with questions about why NMMHAM matters or even exists, I encourage you to learn more and join the conversation.

Hope starts with me. Hope starts with you. Hope starts with us.

Natalia Rawls is an intern in NAMI's Multicultural Action Center.

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