February 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.

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