Mental illness remains hidden shame within Black community

African Americans suffer more from psychological distress

Merdies Hayes Editor In Chief | 5/10/2018, midnight
A couple of years ago, Kanye West's widely-covered nervous breakdown placed a brief spotlight..

Socio-economic factors also play a part. Treatment options for low-income Blacks are less available. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 20 percent of African Americans had no form of health insurance, despite the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Provider bias and an inequality of care also have a role. A health care provider who is not culturally competent might not recognize bodily aches and pains (particularly in Black women patients) when discussing depression and may not include such complaints when making a mental health diagnosis. Black men are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expression symptoms are related to mood disorders or PTSD.

A common assumption of mental illness among homeless African Americans tends to focus on drug and alcohol use. Not long ago, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) looked at the overall health and wellbeing of homeless and drug-addicted African Americans and whether they were receiving the necessary outreach and treatment needed to improve their lives. Their research found that 9.1 percent of African Americans (or 2.6 million persons) required treatment for illicit drug use and alcoholism. And although Blacks were reportedly less likely to need the same level of treatment for alcohol use than other racial and ethnic groups, they were considerably more likely to need treatment for illicit drug use.

The SAMHSA research also revealed that an estimated 2.2 million African Americans need but did not receive specialty substance use treatment in any given year, compared with 18.4 million persons from other racial and ethnic groups. Among Blacks who needed but did not receive substance abuse treatment, 92 percent reportedly did not feel the need for treatment, 5.2 percent said they felt the need for treatment (but made no effort to receive it), while only 2.8 percent said they needed treatment and would make an effort to obtain it.

'Self medicating' among homeless

Unfortunately, African Americans who do not receive treatment for a mental illness often join the legions of homeless persons who ultimately choose to “self medicate” to ease the pain of daily living. Alcoholism and illicit drug use are the main culprits of the epidemic of mentally ill homeless persons seen wandering through the streets of Los Angeles and other large metropolitan areas nationwide.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has stated that up to one-third of inmates at the Twin Towers jail facility in Downtown Los Angeles suffer from some form of mental illness. This has resulted in a plan to expand the jail to specifically house and treat mentally ill inmates. The number of jail inmates in California who are administered psychotropic drugs has jumped about 25 percent in the past five years, and they now account for about one-fifth of the statewide jail population.

Researchers from California Health Policy Strategies suggest that the increase in numbers may stem from better identification of people in need of treatment, but caution that jails have effectively become repositories for people in the throes of acute mental health crises. Across California, far more people with mental illness are housed in jails and prisons rather than in psychiatric hospitals. This scenario highlights the problem of insufficient staff training and patient treatment which, in the end, has contributed to an increase in inmate suicides, self-mutilation, violence and other problems.

“This is a long-term problem as we find that mental health treatment goes 'up and down' depending on who is in [political] office,” Odom said. “It is not a good idea to increasingly rely on the legal system to provide mental health treatment. It is good that people in jail are receiving the necessary treatment, but there must be a regimen of follow up sessions by qualified practitioners to achieve the best outcome for these persons suffering with a mental disorder.”