Research shows African-Americans are less likely to access treatment for mental illness.
Cultural norms and the stigma associated with having a mental illness are partly to blame, according to Shardé Smith, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Smith studies the role that race-related stress and trauma has on entire families, and what strategies people use to cope.
She spoke recently with Side Effects Public Media about the barriers to mental health treatment for African-Americans and the relationship between racism, trauma and mental illness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the barriers that prevent African-Americans from seeking help for a mental illness?
Mistrust of the therapeutic system stems from events like the Tuskegee experiment and other systemic injustices where African-Americans were treated unfairly. There’s also shame and negative beliefs about mental health care, and the assumption that an individual or community failed in some way, which led to these issues. And for those who are part of a religious community, sometimes mental illness is seen as not having enough faith in God.
What is the role of systemic racism in all this?
Systemic racism is the institutionalization of racism through policies and practices that show up in all of our systems. And it's through systemic racism that mental health issues arise and are maintained.
For example, living in an impoverished community with less access to proper food and nutrition can be very stressful and can create mental health problems among individual family members. Another example could be the funneling of black youth through the justice system, where they're more likely to either go to jail or be a part of the system than to receive proper mental health care.
There are also inequalities in our education system that can create gaps in wealth. This can lead to mental health problems, and systemic racism also means there's a lack of access to proper mental health care, cultural biases from health providers, misdiagnoses such as attributing certain behaviors to delinquency as opposed to survival coping strategies for the trauma people have faced.
What role does trauma play?
Trauma plays a huge role. The disparities that we see cause trauma, and a lot of times that trauma goes unaddressed, and it's not named as such. So it's difficult finding treatment for the trauma because we don't have a name for it.
What are some examples of trauma?
Race-related trauma could include the traumatic experiences, emotionally, psychologically, physically that manifest as the result of experiencing one or multiple events. Sometimes we think of traumas, such as natural disasters, sexual trauma, or car accidents, which are traumatic events. But sometimes we don't think about race-related trauma as a part of that, and it's important to include that in our understanding of trauma and how it can effect marginalized communities and African-Americans.
To loosely quote Kimberlé Crenshaw, if there's no name for a problem, you can't see a problem. And if you can't see a problem you can't solve it. And sometimes we don't name these traumas as racial traumas that black and African-Americans are experiencing.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
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