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Op-Ed: How Far Have We Come in Accepting Mental Health Disabilities?

May 20, 2022

When’s the last time you asked your neighbor, friend, or colleague how they’re doing and received an honest response? So often, people proclaim they’re “fine,” “doing well,” or that “everything’s good,” when in reality, they may be facing internal struggles without a reliable means of coping. How do we get them talking?

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the time to create discussions and considerations around mental health and those that live with associated challenges and disparities. Specifically, we’ll focus on African American mental health and how to create positive dialogue around it to generate solutions. 

The stats

The Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that Black American adults are more likely than white adults to report persistent emotional distress, like sadness, hopelessness, and feeling like everything is an effort. Yet, despite this cringy statistic, only one in three Black adults receive the mental health care they need. To add to the devastation, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that about 1,800 Black children died by suicide between 2003 and 2017. In addition, the suicide rate of Black girls increased by an average of 6.6 percent each year. Healthline reports that suicide rates amongst people of color increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.    

What’s causing these mental health challenges?

There aren’t any definite answers as to why the Black community experiences mental health crises at higher rates. However, these challenges may link to a common shared African American experience of racism, inequality, trauma, and socioeconomic factors that Black people face more than their white counterparts. Although Mental Health Awareness Month has been around since 1949, the conversation hasn’t always been a well-accepted topic in the Black community. Stigmas toward mental health and lack of care, including provider bias and misdiagnoses, has created doubt and discomfort when it comes to addressing mental health. 

In a 2021 New York Times article, the study’s lead author, Dr. Arielle H. Sheftall, found that some of the children who committed suicide suffered from disabilities like A.D.H.D. or experienced problems at home or school. The COVID-19 pandemic also plays into mental health struggles—it added to struggles and loss of careers, family, and food and shelter coverage for many people nationwide.

What can you do?

If you or someone you know struggles with mental health, there are ways to cope and seek assistance. By learning more about mental health topics and signs of distress, you can help yourself, or others pinpoint when help is needed. Knowing what local and national treatment, resources, prevention, and medical support are available may help you and others maintain healthy coping mechanisms and even help save lives. 

While, historically, the mental health discussion may not have been as present, you can continue to help push the needle forward by encouraging healthy dialogue amongst your friends, family, and people you know. So the next time you ask someone how they’re doing, perhaps you can encourage them to elaborate on how they’re feeling.