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Fri, May 07

Column | Race and Mental Health

As a black man who has worked in the community behavioral health industry for more than 30 years, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the struggles that individuals and family members go through when faced with mental illness challenges. I’ve seen people overcome great odds and come out on the other side of what might be considered the worst time of their lives. I’ve also had the privilege of working with and caring for individuals from a variety of ethnic communities. I can say with certainty that when it comes to mental health, race matters.

Years of oppression, the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, riots and the Black Lives Matter movement has had great psychological impact on black people. It has also revealed unique challenges within the mental health services industry. Here are a few points to ponder:

  • Blacks disproportionately experience more severe forms of mental health conditions due to unmet needs and other barriers.
  • According to the Health and Human Service Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.
  • Black youths who are exposed to violence are at a greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder by over 25%. Black Americans are also more likely to be exposed to factors that increase the risk for developing a mental health condition, such as homelessness and exposure to violence.
  • In the Black community, people often misunderstand what a mental health condition is and therefore the subject is uncommon.
  • The lack of understanding of mental illness leads many Blacks to believe that a mental health condition is a weakness or a form of punishment.
  • Many Black people have trouble recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, which leads to them underestimating the effects of mental health conditions.
  • Black Americans may also be reluctant to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment because of the shame and stigma still associated with such conditions in their community.

Take these facts into account and add the recent events into the equation and it is a recipe for a community crisis.

Experts define trauma as the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening incident. The unrelenting series of events Black people have witnessed and experienced before and after the killing of George Floyd is racial trauma.

At its core, racial trauma is racism.

Racism takes three forms, each a chronic stressor:

  • Systemic racism is experienced when ideologies, institutions, and policies operate to produce racial inequality.
  • Interpersonal racism involves two or more people and can be manifested through bigotry, bias, prejudice, and microaggressions.
  • Internalized racism is the acceptance of negative stereotypes and societal beliefs about one’s racial group.

While recent events have been an incredible stressor on the Black community, it has also created opportunity as I believe individuals are having dialogues about race that they have never had before today. For many Black Americans, the journey to healing starts with sharing the conversations many are having today.

Many are left wondering how they can help. Individuals can start by learning about white privilege, white fragility and the meaning of anti-racism. Educate yourself and participate in active listening and reflecting. Have a conversation with someone that is a non-white person regarding the meaning of white privilege and share your thoughts about systemic racism.

Organizations can play an important part, too. Avoid issuing empty statements. Black lives cannot matter if Black Americans are not part of an organization’s daily decision-making body, senior management or corporate board. Listen to what your Black employees are saying and advocate for the suggested changes. Do not limit listening to town halls or organization-wide meetings. Listen at lunch, listen at work and acknowledge and convert the ideas and recommendations you hear into action.

(Ed McClelland, M.Ed., is vice president of community services with Southwest Behavioral & Health Services, which has an office at 2215 Hualapai Mountain Road in Kingman.)

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