Why Minority Mental Health Awareness Month? A First-Person View
I know when some people see that July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, they may ask themselves why such a thing is even necessary. Why talk about minorities specifically? Why can’t we focus on mental health issues generally?
The answer is that mental health issues do not discriminate, but societal inputs can make identifying and treating mental health issues in minorities even more difficult than in the population at large.
I know about these issues first-hand, both from my personal and family experiences as an African-American female and as a peer specialist here at Beacon Health Options. In that role, I spend much of my day helping clients to shed their distrust of a culture and system that have made mental health treatment a concept and not a reality.
Why the distrust?
There are several explanations for African Americans’ reluctance to access treatment. First, many people in African-American communities stigmatize mental health issues; this stigma and fear of judgment can prevent African Americans from seeking help. Often, people want to keep mental illness in the family so as not to publicly suffer the perceived “shame” of that illness. Indeed, participants in a 2013 survey revealed they were not open to acknowledging psychological problems.
Secondly, African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and/or anxiety. In fact, even high blood pressure and other stress-related illnesses can be traced to challenges specific to discrimination. These issues are still not fully recognized and addressed in minority communities.
Furthermore, there is a deep-seated lack of trust in doctors. Having lived during the Jim Crow era, my parents and grandparents faced especially virulent racism, including in health care. Not only was there no access to mental health services, there was an active mistrust of doctors … and with good reason. As time goes by, we learn about horrific experiments in the name of “science.” The Tuskegee Experiment is but one example where people in power misused those not in power, in this case, leaving syphilis untreated as an experiment among African-American men.
Challenging but rewarding
All of these factors add to the challenging nature of trying to make a difference in the lives of those Beacon serves. For example, when I’m working with clients, they don’t always trust me. Often, I’ll hear someone express fear that I’m going to take their kids or pass judgment on them. I work with these clients to help them “unlearn” that distrust, but it doesn’t happen quickly. In actuality, I help people struggling physically, emotionally and psychologically to get the assistance they need.
I also support them wherever they are in the recovery process, constantly reminding them that “I’m still here for you even though you don’t agree with me. I’m not leaving.” By building rapport, sometimes there’s a breakthrough, and even the small things, such as “Well, maybe I’ll look into what you’re talking about” are the rewards of the job. It’s challenging but rewarding and is my life’s true calling.
We should remember that we’re all in this together, and everyone in the Beacon community all work to assist front-line staff like me; we empower each other. We must remember that our mission is to advocate and serve locally a vulnerable and at-risk population. Through our work to support Beacon’s corporate values, we’re all in service to the greater good, even if we never talk to a member in our daily work lives.
Now more than ever we need to increase advocacy, services, and outreach, and reduce stigma surrounding mental health, especially in minority communities. My hope is that raising awareness and advocacy will help people to take the necessary steps in becoming self-sufficient and empowered.