Why Do We Need Mental Health Awareness Month Anyway?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I know, it seems like we’re recognizing a different disease every month. Breast cancer. Cystic Fibrosis. Autism. All of these conditions are serious, certainly, and it is to the benefit of public to raise awareness about their diagnosis and treatment to save lives. Why, then, do we need Mental Health Awareness Month? Many of us believe that mental health isn’t important, isn’t fatal, or that other aspects of our lives are more important, like physical health. However, mental health is a very serious issue in the Black community, and raising awareness of mental health issues will prove beneficial for us.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority health, African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites. This distress is caused by experience of systematic racism, like poverty, racial microagressions and some physiological conditions. By contrast, Black people are 50% less likely to receive medications to treat serious mental distress. This gap between experience and treatment of psychological stress can lead to longer, more intense suffering without the tools necessary for relief, namely therapy and medication.
Some of the difference between African American experience and diagnosis/treatment of mental health conditions comes from our community’s substandard access to all health care. Yet many of us have financial and practical access to health care and still refuse to utilize it for mental health services. Our reluctance to participate in mental health care is rooted in our cultural beliefs and stigmas surrounding our mental health.
Religion plays a large role in traditional Black communities, used as a source of comfort, strength and support. Many times, we rely on spiritual guidance for mental health issues when traditional therapy should be added to address psychological symptoms. Prayer and religious guidance have little effect on serious mental conditions, causing us to become more distressed. Other beliefs, like “therapy is for White people” and “Black people are too strong to have emotional problems”, further push African Americans away from the mental health care that we need.
What does all this mean for Black women? It means that when we experience lingering emotional distress, we don’t hear the messages that we need. It means that we can persist living in the “Superwoman” myth that we can have it all and do it all without showing weakness. We watch young, Black males suffer in silence until their suicides become a leading cause of death. We don’t realize that emotional disturbances like stress and depression are making us physically ill. We dismiss emotionally volatile behaviors in others as “cray-cray”. We don’t get help.
As a Black woman, I’ve personally experienced the effects of community stigma on my mental health. The first time I experienced symptoms of depression, I went to church. When prayer didn’t work, I thought that I was a failure. I never considered therapy because I never heard a Black person talk about it. I dismissed people with erratic behavior as “crazy”, not believing that they had a serious problem. I suffered for years before getting treatment. Those years of suffering could have been different if I’d known that I had a disease. If I hadn’t been afraid to go to therapy or take medication. If I hadn’t borne the shame I felt about my condition before I “came out” 10 years after diagnosis.
Mental health is as important, and as impactful, as physical health. Ignoring it, or not treating the signs of compromised mental health, has a detrimental effect on the quality of one’s life. That’s why Mental Health Awareness Month is so important, particularly for the Black community because we have so many barriers to overcome about mental health.