Black History Month, celebrated in February each year, is a time to recognize the central role African Americans have played in the United States in both the past and the present and to recognize and celebrate their achievements. Mental illness, without any further distinction, affects one in four Americans. However, African Americans are disproportionately more likely to experience mental health issues and social stigma. Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping, and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today. African American mental health statistics show that socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health. Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender or identity. Anyone can experience the challenges of mental illness regardless of their background. However, background and identity can make access to mental health treatment much more difficult. Ongoing stigma and lack of access to health care act as barriers for anyone with a mental health condition, but experts argue there is a particular disparity when it comes to minorities, especially African Americans, which can contribute to individuals not receiving proper support or treatment to feel better.

A new study published in the International Journal of Health Services only further corroborates this fact. Researchers found that black young people were less able to get mental health services than white children and young adults. This happens even though rates of mental illness are generally consistent across all ethnicities, Kaiser Health News reported.

  • African American adults are 20% more likely to experience mental health issues than the rest of the population
  • 25% of African Americans seek treatment for a mental health issue, compared to 40 percent of white individuals. The reasons for this drop off include misdiagnosis by doctors, socioeconomic factors and a lack of African American mental health professionals.
  • Adult Black/African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report severe psychological distress than those living above poverty.
  • Black/African Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, Black/African Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).
  • Only 6.2 percent of psychologists, 5.6 percent of advanced-practice psychiatric nurses, 12.6 percent of social workers, and 21.3 percent of psychiatrists are members of minority groups. According to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), only 3.7% of members in the American Psychiatric Association and 1.5% of members in the American Psychological Association are Black.
  • African Americans of all ages are more likely to witness or be victims of serious violent crimes. Exposure to violence increases the risk of developing a mental health condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
  • African American children are more likely than other children to be exposed to violence, which can have a profound, long-term effect on their mental health.
  • Some African Americans even see mental illness as a punishment from God. Up to 85 percent of African Americans describe themselves as “fairly religious” or “religious,” and they commonly use prayer as a way to handle stress, according to one study cited by the American Psychiatric Association.

Working to break down the barriers

Black History Month is a celebration of all African Americans however every month of the year professionals and society, alike, should be working to break down barriers for all minorities, including African Americans, to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health. African Americans should have unlimited access to mental health, eating disorder and substance abuse resources and care, regardless of their social or financial status. It starts from the bottom up, meaning that this is a grassroots issue. Additionally, there needs to be an increase in the number of African American mental health professionals and greater cultural competency in those currently in the field and an increased in education in the faith communities about the role of professional mental health treatments and how they can work together.