What you think you understand about African Americans and mental health may be dead wrong. This might be difficult to accept, particularly because African Americans have taken pride in the myths about our mental health. We believe that mental health is controlled by willpower, faith and even our race. Even experts align with these misguided beliefs, ultimately affecting the way we view mental health in our community and how we take care of ourselves.
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Several national studies and leading researchers are now describing African-American mental health as more complex than once considered and, these patterns are critical to not only understanding mental health, but may also be the key to improving our overall well-being.
Looking at the current reports might help to demystify these false beliefs.
• Myth #1: African Americans are less likely to have mental health disorders than other ethnic minorities.
Though African Americans still only account for about 3% of the national population with serious mental illness, we now understand that numbers are not clear indicators of mental health in this population. Access to care, low help seeking, misdiagnosis, and delivery of care are all major factors affecting how minority mental health is accounted for and understood. Simply put, is an African-American male more likely to get a mental health diagnosis in the mental health system or the judicial system? Or, when your teenage daughter starts telling you she’s hearing voices do you share this information with her pediatrician or with her pastor?
• Myth #2: African Americans are “strong” and can handle stress.
Though only thirty-one percent of African-Americans believe that depression is a health problem, most would agree that physical ailments are drastically affecting our community. Dr. James S. Jackson, of the University of Michigan, has identified coping skills as key elements in understanding health disparities. According to Jackson, while behaviors like smoking, drug use, and consuming comfort foods may serve as negative coping skills in White Americans, these same behaviors may buffer African-Americans from developing mental health disorders consequently contributing to disproportionate rates of physical health problems like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. It seems self- medicating may play a significant role in helping African-Americans to function in stressful environments but clearly to the detriment of our health.