“What’s going on”: increased rates of mental illness among African Americans

Published Wednesday, November 13, 2013

by C. Nicole Swiner, M.D., Columnist

The holidays are approaching, which, for most people, is something to be excited about. However, for many, the holidays can be stressful and a reminder of sad times or missed loved ones.

Recently, there’s been more sadness, despair and desperation in the local news. At the risk of being controversial, the mood is increasing in the black community.

Years ago, the stereotype of African-Americans and mental illness was we didn’t suffer as much from clinical depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia than the general population. However, we’ve seen or read about sad situations like the young black male killed at the Marriott who suffered with suicidal thoughts or the young black mother suffering from postpartum depression at the Nation’s Capitol.

The running assumption not too long ago was they would be of any other race than black. This then begs the question: What’s going on?

What stresses us out so much? Is it the feeling of discrimination, poverty, poor health, or family or marital issues? From the Office of Minority Health (http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov), it was noted that African-Americans living below the poverty line suffer from emotional and mental distress three times more than others just as poor or poorer. Even more interesting is the report that whites are twice more likely to seek help and take an antidepressant than blacks.

Why is that? Although the suicide rate for blacks in 2011 was 60 percent lower than whites, it increased for the first time since the 1990s.

Something has changed.

Is it that the stressors of the world have finally started to get more people to their breaking point? Or is it that we don’t have the same coping skills and support system we used to have in years past? I can attest to the fact, both with my patients and with talking to friends and family, that a running theme in black families is to “keep things in the house” or “behind closed doors.”

It generally was not well accepted to be willing to or at least admit that one needed a therapist or a psychiatrist. Some would even feel judged or embarrassed to admit they were seeing a “shrink” for their problems. Faith and the church fixed most issues of stress and sadness. I still believe the previous statement to be true, in that prayer and support from your spiritual base are extremely vital for happiness and survival. However, there are hopefully more people now that are open to seeing a medical professional for some of these issues as well.

No, medicine doesn’t fix everything, but counseling with an unbiased person with a medical background can be helpful. Despite what some celebrities or others in media may say, mental illness has been proven to be linked to chemical and hormonal imbalances in the body. Postpartum depression and psychosis, for instance, is a hormonal phenomenon for women that can occur until one year after a baby is born. Research has shown that schizophrenia has a genetic predisposition, meaning it can be hereditary.

Sometimes these things cannot be “prayed away,” although again I am a believer of the power of prayer. I also know there are great benefits to medical science, namely antidepressants and antipsychotics. 

I’m a proponent of both. I encourage family support, rest, meditation, prayer and exercise – always first. But if that doesn’t help you to feel less tearful, less hopeless, less worthless, less suicidal or safer, then please seek medical help. Your medical professional can provide good advice, emotional support, medication and counseling to help you work through the tough times. The goal, ultimately, is happiness and good health.

Just figure out what help feels most comfortable to you, but, please, get help. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: