CJL Blog: Staying Aware

The Insider to Trauma, Substance and Relationships

African American Versus Mental Health

As an African American therapist, it continues to be my concerns about how to improve seeking treatment in the African American community. Despite statistics stating there is an increase in African American seeking treatment. There continues to be a concern. Based on the statistics from, 13. 2% of the U.S populations, identify as African American. Of those, 13.2% about 16 to 20 % of the population have been diagnosed with a mental health illness in one year. This is about 6.8 million people. With increasing numbers of individuals with a diagnosis, there remains a need to discuss cultural acceptance and competency to improve rapport building during treatment.   The goal is to cover the reason for limited access to mental health illness.

Over the years, studies have been conducted to decide if there is a disparity between mental health assessment and discrimination in therapy. How has this influence the direction of therapy and the ability for a therapist to build a positive connection with his or her ethnic client?  Most importantly, the effectiveness in providing the correct diagnosis for an African American. As a mental health professional, it is important for us to examine the way relationships of dominance, submission, power, and privilege is embedded in the stigmatization of therapy.

Let’s dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health therapy

Many believe seeking help from a professional means you are “crazy”.  In any community, appearance is important. For those within the African American community, we live with the idea we are strong enough to handle any situations. Strength is important. The influences from family and friends impacts a person's decision to seek help. A person cannot be seen as the weakest link in the family. Forcing a person to stay withdrawn from others while suffering alone.

The racism is also the foundation for mental health stigma with the African American Community.   Despite a steady increase of African American becoming a therapist, psychiatrist, and social workers. There continue to be concerned about the effect of being judged in therapy due to racism. As a generational problem, fear of being discriminated by a mental health professional is a large concern. Many individuals are concerned with being stereotyped in session. A person telling them the way he or she has lived their life is wrong. The fear of being forced to alter their cultural identity to fit into the majority concept of appropriate.

As I mention before, there is an increase of African-American in the field. So, this should begin the process of bridging the gap. From my personal perspective, I hope so. Being able to choose the person you can work with is important. Unfortunately, interracial oppression is a real concern impacting the ability to feel comfortable with seeking treatment. The fear of being subjective, to criticism by anyone who can be identified as a threat to their cultural norm and identity.  Many are concerned an African American in the field has lost their concept of being a Black person in America. As an African American therapist, it is important to allow my clients to understand there is only one expert in the session. That expert is them. They are the expert in their life, the decision they have made and their goals for the future

Ways to Bridge the Gap between African American and Mental Health Treatment

1.    Educate: Educating the community on the importance of seeking treatment is important. Sometimes, we fear the very thing we lack knowledge on. Education brings enlightenment or begins challenging their previous thoughts on mental health illness. Not only educating the public, but continue to educate mental health professionals on being culturally competent. Being an African American is not enough. I may have been raised on the low-end of Chicago. However, that does not mean that my experience will be my client’s experience. Being African American does not mean that I can always relate to my client. It is not always necessary to relate. Being open to learning more will strengthen the client and therapist relationship. Allowing the client to feel as if what he or she must say is important.

2.    Knowing Your Biases: As a therapist, being aware of your personal biases is important. Everyone has some form of biases. It is an unfair thought to believe you can work with any population. You may be tolerant of all population. You can attempt to avoid them. However, they are routed in your decision-making. Supervision is very important to address transference. It happens. Being direct and not being confrontational is important when addressing a client’s bias. Either way, the bias formed are generational. Not always easy to challenge. Yet, it must be challenged if the change is going to occur.

Slowly, the gap is becoming smaller. There continues to be a lot of work to challenge the stigma of mental health.  One day, discrimination of gender, race, sexual orientation and age will no longer be a widespread concern. Until then, we must continue to work towards unity.