Why Has Mental Illness Been Ignored and Stigmatized Among African-Americans?

Why Has Mental Illness Been Ignored and Stigmatized Among African-Americans?

The consequences of untreated mental health issues are front and center in recent news. Kanye West, following an emergency hospitalization, has been released after suffering from “exhaustion and sleep deprivation.” He has been out and about rather than staying committed to maintaining his mental health and following his provided treatment plan. A source shared:

“Kanye is supposed to rest and focus on his mental health. Instead, he has had a very busy week and is done resting.”

Apparently, he is currently receiving outpatient care with a medical team to address his condition. The stigma of mental illness can derail a successful career, and even though individuals such as the late Carrie Fisher, who brought attention and more acceptance of mental health illness with her openness about her struggles with bipolar disorder, mental illness has been particularly hard to address in the black community. Mental illness is not a new issue, but new resources are available to better address the needs of those in the African-American community. Find out what the challenges are for those who serve blacks with mental illness, what deters some African-Americans from seeking treatment, and what needs to be done to improve the available level of mental health care.

What Is Going on With Kanye West?

The popular hip-hop performer cancelled 21 dates on a recent tour to undergo treatment and spend time on psychiatric hold at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. His apparent breakdown has brought new light to the issue of mental health and how it affects black men. He is only one of the latest hip-hop performers who is becoming more public with mental health struggles. Additional details have yet to be made public.

He is not the first black performer to struggle with a mental health crisis. According to The Washington Post, DMX shared his experiences about dealing with bipolar disorder, and Kid Cudi sought professional help for “depression and suicidal urges.” Kendrick Lamar wrote and spoke about depression and survivor’s guilt. The positive side of black public figures openly addressing and sharing their experiences is that their fans can understand that mental health problems can affect anyone, and many may find solace when they realize their role model shares the same or a similar condition that they have. A woman at a recent concert came up to Lamar and shared:

“You saved my life.”

She struggled with suicidal thoughts and wanted to kill herself in 2014, but she found that his music helped her get through a difficult period in her life.

Why Has Mental Illness Been Ignored and Stigmatized Among African-Americans?

Mental illness has no boundaries in regards to class, race or income level. Individuals of any age and background can suffer and struggle with mental illness in silence. NBC4 shared a video about mental health challenges within black communities.

Bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions can isolate individuals from family members, communities and religious organizations. This isolation may increase feelings of despair and depression and increase the risk of suicide. The interviewee in the video is from Nigeria, and his family believed that there were “demons in him,” rather than encouraging him to seek professional help. Culture can play a strong role in whether a person will look for and receive necessary treatment. A number of reasons exist as to why blacks do not seek mental health care. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), top factors that deter individuals from treatment are:

  • Lack of cultural understanding;
  • Inadequate treatment; and
  • Misdiagnosis.

As for finding a mental health professional who understands their background and culture, African-Americans are sorely underrepresented. According to NAMI, blacks make up only:

  • 2 percent of psychiatrists;
  • 2 percent of psychologists; and
  • 4 percent of social workers.

Ethnicity and culture may require a larger number of minority clinicians to become available to effectively treat those with a mental health problem. There are apparent benefits for African-Americans with mental health issues to be treated by African-American mental health professionals. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry shared:

  • African-Americans are more likely to remain in treatment;
  • African-Americans appear to have a higher level of compliance with treatment plans; and
  • African-Americans feel more understood and accepted.

In Mental Health Challenges for Black Community, patients are reported to appear to appreciate and benefit from working with those who have the same culture and background as they do. However, the pool of minority mental health professionals needs to grow, and the field of mental health needs to become more attractive as a career option.

Where to Find Additional Resources to Better Serve African-Americans

Those interested in improving the quality of mental health care for blacks with mental health issues within their communities may want to review A Growing List of Black Mental Health Resources provided by Ebony. The listed businesses are black owned, with black mental health professionals such as Dr. Eliza Belle, a black licensed psychologist in Alabama, who is passionate about helping those with mental health illness thrive in the black community. The mental health resource list includes services and providers in the states of:

  • Alabama;
  • California;
  • The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (DMV);
  • Florida;
  • Georgia;
  • Illinois;
  • Louisiana;
  • New York;
  • North Carolina;
  • Tennessee; and
  • Texas.

Online resources, educational materials, podcasts and books are also available on this useful resource. Mental health is an issue that needs more attention in general but could greatly benefit from a larger number of minority mental health professionals and resources that address the specific needs of African-Americans and the struggles they experience within their own communities. Kanye West is a public figure who adds his face to a problem affecting many within the black community.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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