Let's Talk: Mental Health in the African American Community

Oct 2, 2019

As part of our Mental Health Inititative, WBFO held a Facebook Live discussion at the Merriweather Library on Jefferson Avenue Tuesday night. The topic of discussion was mental health in the African American community. Why is mental stigmatized in the Black community?

Credit Dave Debo / WBFO

A large crowd showed up to the Frank Merriweather Library on a wet evening to hear a discussion about mental health in the Black community. Is there really a stigma in the community related to mental health? The panel of four experts in the field said yes.

“Stigma is there for all cultural groups when it comes to mental health,” Mental Health Counselor and Panelist Erin Moss. “But in particular, for the African American Community, I really believe it has historical roots.”

Moss said the stigma is alive and well because it has been passed down through generations.  She reasons the stigma runs deep because of a distrust between African Americans and healthcare providers. 

Another panel speaker, Pastor George Nicholas echoed Moss’ sentiment.

“A healthcare system that really doesn’t understand us. They don’t understand our bodies. They certainly don’t understand our minds,” he said.

Both agreed unresolved traumas, including socioeconomic issues, and pride are factors as to why the Black community struggles with even identifying poor mental health traits.

For men, Nicholas said, this can manifest itself into toxic masculinity.

“We have to throw out all this notion about being strong, and all that stuff is just a burden that will drive you completely insane,” he said.

Nicholas said many Black men suffer in silence, and to remedy such pain, men to further embrace their humanity.

But there is no quick and easy fix to resolving one’s mental health problems. And there are many preconceptions surrounding the subject in the African American community.

“The worst thing that I think anyone has ever said to me, and it happens often, is you don’t look like what you’ve been through,” said Front Seat Life Principal Kelly Marie Wofford. “Well, this what depression look like. You know what I’m saying? We have to stop glorifying the face. Black does crack and if you don’t work on it you’d be broken at BryLin or ECMC.”

Wofford said she sees a reluctancy to get help. Among barriers like poverty, learned trauma and discrimination, there’s also a shortage of African-American mental health professionals.

Moss said it’s important for some people to talk to someone who looks like them.

“That’s ok to say. We’re so underrepresented in the health care field period, not just the mental health field. But definitively in the mental health field,” Moss said. “And people are searching for someone that represents them. Especially when we look at some of the issues that folks are wanting to come in to talk about. And I have to explain to them that that’s ok. That we learn that in our training, that sometimes people want someone that represents them. We understand that if someone had a disability maybe they would want to see someone that could relate to them in that way.”

But Nicholas later pointed out given the current stigma, just the opposite can be true as well.

“For as many black folks that will come to her because she’s a black therapist, there are probably five black folks that won’t come to her because she’s a black therapist. And that sickness, we have to kill ourselves of that,” Nicholas said.

Sweet Home High School At Risk Counselor Keli-Koran Luchey said while we typically voice these concerns about young men, the same if not more could be said for young women.

“With clients that I have worked with, I see even with students. Moms coming in. ‘Oh my mom is so strong. She’s so strong.’ That’s good,” Luchey said. “My mom is strong, but she releases and it’s important for us as African-American women to be able to talk about our pains, our hurts.”

All the panelists agreed there is no one image of mental illness. It can impact anyone and all ages. The next step is continuing these conversations and making sure services are in place for a community with many underserved areas.