Changing the Dialogue About Mental Illness in the Black Community

by: Jessica Land Special to the AFRO
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Mental illness can be confusing and we don’t understand all the factors that contribute to it.

The effects are too pervasive to be ignored, but denial of the problem is the prescription in many of the Black neighborhoods of Baltimore. There is a resounding cry across the country to address disparities in health care administration and legislation, particularly on college campuses. Those cries are not being heard in our streets, where schizophrenia often reveals itself as a propensity towards violence, depression translates as laziness and trauma is acknowledged merely as a right of passage into an ever-nefarious cycle of denial. For the 24 percent of Black Baltimoreans living beneath the poverty line, the need to take care of themselves is frightfully superseded by the need to simply survive.

Jessica Land

The issue of racial identity is central to many of our people’s health and how we seek and receive medical treatment. The paths that we walk are dramatically different from our White counterparts because feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing and fear are not only commonplace among us, but sewn into our identities by centuries of oppression and systemic discrimination. Black people are fighters, and the ability to survive despite the direst circumstances and the most profane abuse is all too often the only birthright we know to claim.  Avoiding the countless addicts, homeless people and delinquent members of our population does not make them go away.

National research studies show that these behaviors are the manifestations of psychological issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and depression. There are several reasons why these diseases occur, but the enormous economic disparity along racial barriers in Baltimore is a large contributing factor that is often underestimated when diagnosing its Black residents.

Another factor is that although health care professionals have often misdiagnosed, oversimplified, exploited or ignored our mental health issues, the concept of mental health is neglected and discouraged nationwide. Even in White communities, the stigma attached to mental illness shrouds any real progress towards diagnosing and treating it. It is often associated with weakness, with the failure to persevere and survive our struggle.

Survival has always been our prerogative, and the inability to do so is often met in society at large with hostility rather than understanding or working solutions. The ability to do simple, everyday things is the goal when prison culture drenches crime-ravaged neighborhoods. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10 percent of African Americans are more likely to report having serious psychological issues, but are 70 percent less likely to commit suicide than non-Hispanic Whites. We are conditioned to suffer, but not to use suicide as an escape mechanism.

Black people have often used religion and education to scale an otherwise impenetrable race wall, and have relied on spirituality rather than medical professionals to cure us. A deep distrust of doctors is passed down through generations that boast horror stories of exploitation, such as the infamous Henrietta Lacks case and the Tuskegee syphilis study. These instances are rarer now, but the fear of being taken advantage of remains.

Resources are available. Maryland boasts a higher doctor to patient ratio than the national average. Organizations like The Simon Life and Wellness Center and All Walks of Life, among others, cater to Baltimore’s underserved populations. Inpatient and outpatient programs that accept Medicaid are available at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center. Baltimore Crisis Response Hotline can be reached at 410-433-5175. The only ways that these resources can be used are if the dialogue about our mental health changes. No longer can it be swept under the rug and chalked up to flaws in character. The mind controls every part of a person, and we must accept that keeping it healthy is tantamount to our success.

Jessica Land is an intern in the Baltimore office of the AFRO American Newspaper.

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