Suicide Awareness Week, which began Sept. 6, aims to erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues and suicide. For African Americans — who are more likely to have mental health issues and less likely to receive care — the need is greater.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults, largely due to the psychological stresses created by systemic racism. The American Psychological Association in 2019 found that viral videos of police killings and violence against African Americans can produce trauma symptoms, including those of post traumatic stress disorder, in Black people.
However, according to Dr. Carrie Dixon of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists, current events are rarely brought up in therapy sessions, potentially leaving the root causes of someone’s mental health struggles out of the conversation.
“Therapists are not likely to ask you about any type of current events that are taking place,” Dixon said. “So, if you’re Black and your neighbor or cousin has been killed by a white policeman and that is contributing to your depression, you may not realize that it’s a contributing factor, and you may not bring it up in therapy.”
While Dixon believes questions related to racial trauma should be standard for all therapists, she said Black psychologists and psychiatrists are more likely to bring up the issue than white doctors, which is why the need for representation, she said, is so great.
“There has to be more of an insistence from the community as a whole for greater representation,” Dixon said.
According to Mental Health America, a nonprofit mental health advocacy group, 58.2% of African Americans living with a mental health issue in 2018 did not receive treatment. Dixon said a lack of representation, inaccessibility to health care and historical practices of doctors using Black patients as “guinea pigs” lead to African Americans in need of mental health care not receiving it.
Dixon said increasing representation will not only make Black patients feel safer and increase the likelihood they will seek help, but it would also prevent incorrect diagnoses.
“[Symptoms of mental health issues] are going to be interpreted differently depending on who is doing the interpretation,” Dixon said. “So, if I as a Black therapist am asking a Black client questions from a standardized test, I might have to go off the script a bit to talk about connection with family and systemic racism issues and what impact that is having on the client.”
Dixon said if a white therapist is unaware of cultural differences and doesn’t understand the significant impact structural racism can have on someone’s mental health, they are more likely to diagnose a Black patient with a severe illness and prescribe them stronger, “more toxic” medication.
Mental Health America found African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and are less often diagnosed with mood disorders compared to white people with the same symptoms.
According to Dr. Dorothy Simpson-Taylor, a member of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists, 132 Americans die by suicide each day — 1 attempt every 28 seconds. Within the African American community, suicide is the third leading cause of death in males ages 15 to 24.
And while, according to Mental Health America, Black people are less likely than whites to die from suicide, Black teenagers are over 5% more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers.
By reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and making mental health care more accessible and representative of the community, Dixon said we may be able to reverse some of the problems the Black community faces today in terms of mental health care.
“Historically, African Americans have been reluctant to seek mental health treatment and medical treatment because of mistrust and mistreatment,” Dixon said, citing experiments on enslaved individuals and a lack of empathy toward Black patients from white doctors. “… We get the point with COVID. We have a disproportionally higher number of Black folks contracting and dying from COVID because of our health problems being more pervasive. … Why is it we’re more vulnerable? We haven’t received the proper treatment. We have good reason to not trust the institutions to do right by us.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.