MEMPHIS, TN — Over the years I’ve heard and read a lot about mental health being considered a stigma in the Black community. That was always disturbing to me, though it was true.

Lynn Norment

For too long, many people have ignored the symptoms and lived with mental health issues when there was no reason for them to suffer. Despite what others think and do, it is up to each of us to take care of ourselves – and that means our mental health as well as our physical health.

Maybe I’m more open to discussing mental health issues because I grew up in Bolivar, TN, home to the former Western State Hospital. Back then, Western State was one of three major mental health institutions in Tennessee. While growing up, and when I became a student at Memphis State, people would joke about Bolivar being synonymous with the “crazy house” or “insane asylum.”

I didn’t like those stereotypical references, but the jokes didn’t bother me, for my mother was a licensed practical nurse at Western State. We were proud to see her leave for work early morning decked out in her white uniform, replete with white shoes, hosiery and nurse’s cap.
We knew that Western State was a serious hospital where very sick people were treated.

At the same time, we had a few quirky people in our family and neighborhood. You know, the kleptomaniac neighbor and the book-smart cousin who seemed to lack common sense. I realized something was off-kilter about these and other people we knew. There was the lady who always seemed to be depressed and consequently cried a lot and drank too much alcohol. Then there was a church member who was a bit odd and a little scary at times.

Even as a kid I knew they needed help, but I doubt that they sought and received the needed treatment. Based on feedback from the many psychologists and psychiatrists I have interviewed over my career, with treatment (counseling, medication, therapy), they might have lived fuller, happier, more productive lives.

Back then, mental illness stigma ran deep in the community. Today, that stigma, that mark of shame and discredit, is still there, especially in the Black community, though to a lesser degree. That makes it difficult for some individuals to reach out to a mental health professional for the help they need.

In the United States, one in five adults experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. One in 20 adults experience “serious” mental illness each year. It is something that affects us all – people of all incomes, cultures, professions, and races.

In the Black community, there are circumstances that lead to additional mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety disorders and post traumatic syndrome. These and other conditions are brought on by prejudice and racism inherent in daily environments. Exposure to pervasive racial traumas and stressors is detrimental to one’s mental health. Add to that issues such as economic insecurity, food insecurity, exposure to violence, and criminal injustice. These all make mental health issues in Black communities even worse.

And then there’s the historic trauma enacted on Black Americans by the medical field. Discriminatory and exploitative behavior from the medical care system toward Black Americans throughout history has led to understandable distrust. Many people are wary of medicine and doctors, and some don’t trust the system to keep their information private. People are concerned about being labeled “mentally ill” when they are depressed or anxious, for they are leery as to how such a label will impact their livelihood or social status.

In recent years, some progress has been made, for people seem to understand mental illness better; yet there is still a lot of negativity associated with mental health issues in the Black community. The pessimistic mindset about mental illness has been formed through experiences, cultural traditions and formal education. Also influencing the thinking are comments, attitudes and stories passed down through generations.

Consequently, many have difficulty acknowledging psychological problems and are hesitant to seek help. In some cases, people do not even recognize the signs of stress or a mental health condition. If they are depressed or overly anxious, they fault themselves for not being strong enough. They think they should be able to handle it, that it’s only temporary. Some feel that if they are tough, they can work their way through it.

Many consider a mental health condition as a personal weakness due to negative stereotypes. In homes and communities, mental health is never discussed openly, though there may be whispers and innuendoes. Some people are ashamed and embarrassed to discuss it, so they stay silent and do not seek help.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing mental ailments and triggered new ones. The deaths of loved ones, loss of jobs, and the uncertainty of life have left many people depressed, overly anxious and traumatized. In addition, racist killings and rhetoric as well as an increase of crime in general have made mental conditions even worse. People are suffering but they don’t know what to do or where to go
To de-stigmatize mental illness in the Black community, we must help people to understand that their mental health is an essential part of general wellbeing – just like sleep, a nutritious diet, and regular physical exercise. Mental wellness is important to overall physical health and satisfaction in life.

If you are struggling with symptoms of an illness and feel that no one would understand what you’re experiencing, please know that you are not alone. If you don’t know how to reach a mental health specialist, talk to your primary care doctor about your feelings and concerns. Some people may be more comfortable reaching out to their pastor or some other spiritual leader. If so, make that your first step and ask where you can find help.

A Columbia University mental health expert wrote that the Black community must understand that “prioritizing mental health is not a sign of weakness, but an act of strength.”

We must make sure there is sufficient information about mental health issues in Black communities. And we all must understand that like the flu, diabetes, or arthritis, mental ailments are common and treatable. There is no shame in seeking professional help.