Say mental illness in the African American community, and most likely you will cause a pause in conversations as large as the white elephant in the room. Mental illness has a disturbing and persistently negative history in the Black community throughout the United States.
Fueled by mistrust of a system that often views Black people as nothing more than guinea pigs ripe for experimentation, accepting the label "mentally ill" comes with a huge stigma.
At the same time that people of African descent distrust and fear some of the services provided by the mental health community, medical staffs are often wary of the Black community and fearful of Black people in general and in particular young Black men. These circumstances are encouraged by prejudice, racism, misunderstanding, and false impression.
And this is not a recent phenomenon. In 1840, a scientific report deliberately falsified the Black insanity rates from the United States Census to show that the further north people of African descent lived, the higher their rates of mental illness. This was to illustrate and support the contention that freedom drove Blacks crazy, thus justifying slavery.
Mental illness is a complex problem and does not discriminate. It strikes people of all races and both genders, and cuts across all social and economic classes.
Researchers have found that Black Americans are less likely than Whites to have a major depressive disorder, and when they do it tends to be more chronic and severe. They are also much less likely to undergo treatment, according to a major National Institutes of Mental Health study.
In the largest study of the Black population of its time, a National Survey of American Life, based on interviews conducted from 2001-2003, found that 10.4 percent of African Americans, 12.9 percent of Caribbean Blacks and 17.9 percent of non-Hispanic Whites had manic depressive disorder at some point in life.
Among participants with depression, the rate of chronic depression was highest in Black groups--56.5 percent in African Americans and 56 percent in Caribbean Blacks, compared with 38.6 percent in Whites.
The National Survey of American Life pointed out a striking difference in treatment among people of African descent with manic depressive disorder--fewer than half of African Americans with the disorder (45 percent) obtain treatment and only about one-quarter (24.3 percent) of Caribbean people who emigrated to the U.S. received treatment.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible.
NAMI goes on to note that mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan.