Stigma of mental health creates challenges for Black community

Story by HARRISON FAUTH

Racism entails seeing people as the problem, not the practices that have created the circumstance. Facing racism, discrimination, and fear as a result of being Black in America can impact an individual’s mental health. Add the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community and it becomes more difficult to seek help. 

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, sadness and hopelessness. Those living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have psychological distress due to financial insecurity. 

The Black community also views mental health differently. One study by the National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 63% of Black people feel it is a personal weakness and feel shame to admit they have a mental health issue. They feel additional discrimination may come from members of their own community. 

“There is absolutely a stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community,” said Kelli Washington, a licensed clinical therapist. In an email interview she said, “This stigma hinders people from access to resources.” She discussed that changing the narrative needs to happen. Black communities need to see that struggling with mental health is not a weakness. 

Washington lives in Los Angeles, but treats patients in Utah and California. She sees a need in both places and values the opportunity to support those who otherwise may not feel supported. “I’m passionate about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and there are not a ton of Black therapists, especially in Utah, and I think that is partly attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health and lack of diversity in Utah as a whole.”

Melanie Davis, a licensed therapist and owner of Empath Healing and Wellness in Salt Lake City, is working to help change the narrative around mental health. She is also one of the founders of Black Clinicians, which was created to serve the mental health needs not being addressed in the Black community. Its purpose is to help bring Black providers to the Black community. “I see it as critical that people of color have access to therapists of color,” Davis said in an email interview.

The Black Clinicians group addresses the feelings of pain, fear, and trauma felt by those who have been victims of racism. Events on television such as the May 2020 murder of George Floyd  and Black Lives Matter protests have only made better access to mental health therapy more important.  The Black Clinicians group provides a safe space to address mental health issues and they can provide “a mirrored space to clients of color,” Davis said. 

Members of the Black community often reach out to spiritual leaders rather than licensed therapists. Washington and Davis said they believe there is value in partnering with Black church leaders. Trusted church leaders who encourage the use of licensed mental health providers could go a long way in reducing the stigma of mental health. Providing support and decreasing the feeling of isolation can change the narrative around mental health.

Today the need for mental health therapy is on the rise. Being Black and finding a Black therapist who understands your cultural experience is a challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 race diversity was 59.7% white and 13.4% Black. In Utah the diversity is far less with 77.8% of the population white, and only 1.5% Black.

Compare the 2020 census on population diversity to the number of licensed Black therapists in America and diversity decreases. According to the American Psychological Association, 83.6% of licensed therapists are white and only 5.3% are Black. These numbers highlight the underrepresentation of professional  Black therapists in America. The limited number of Black therapists creates limited access to a trained professional who shares one’s cultural experience.   

Cost of therapy is another obstacle. The APA reports that only 11.5% of Black adults have health insurance, and mental health therapy is expensive.

Dr. Dio Turner II said in an email interview, “While cost is an issue it is more complicated, cost is a massive issue that is much deeper than therapy. There are too many people who must decide between food, housing, tuition, and their health. People are committing suicide and dying because they can’t afford psychotherapy.” He added, “I’m not sure what the precise solution is but it needs to be addressed immediately.”

Washington, the Los Angeles-based therapist, said she believes mental health is a community problem. Mental health therapy should be accessible through schools, workplaces, and community programs. Lowering cost is not the only solution and insurance companies bear some of the responsibility to make it more accessible. 

Davis, a founder of Black Clinicians, has created an innovative way of addressing the cost obstacle. Davis has offered counseling scholarships in her private practice Empath Healing and Wellness since it was founded. She has several families who have utilized this service. Black community members who know these options are available are more likely to reach out for mental health treatment. 

There are many issues facing the mental health of the Black community with no easy solution. Having conversations, breaking down barriers is happening slowly. The bigger issue may be what is at the core of the problem. As Dr. Dio Turner II said, the biggest health issue facing Black communities is “the insidious way that racism affects mental and physical health.”