According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites. African-Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.
|T. RASHAD BYRDSONG
Despite these statistics and the clear impact poverty and violence have had on the mental health of the Black community, African-Americans are less likely to seek out mental health services than other demographic groups. The May 12 meeting, “The Psychological & Emotional Impact of Trauma in the Black Community,” hosted by the Community Empowerment Association and The Commission on African American Affairs, brought together mental health professionals from the Pittsburgh area to discuss these disparities.
“When you begin to look at violence, it’s a byproduct of some of the other things that are happening in our community. But at some point we have to take responsibility for ourselves. There has to be a level of self-assessment in terms of taking responsibility for ourselves and the safety of our children,” CEA Founder T. Rashad Byrdsong said. “Mental health is not a bad word. There’s a lot of deep seeded trauma and you have to ask, where does the pain go.”
The meeting was aimed at findings solutions for reducing the effects of discrimination and trauma on the mental health of African-Americans. According to a study referenced in the 1999 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, over 25 percent of African-American youth exposed to violence met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In the African-American community trauma is repeated. Children shouldn’t have to go through ongoing abuse or neglect, or be exposed to domestic violence, or have to walk through neighborhoods where they feel unsafe,” said Charma Dudley, clinical director, Family Resources. “Our kids should not be exposed to this much violence day to day.”
“The effects of trauma are many. Some of those symptoms are going to be violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or depression. If you look at our families, how broken they are, that’s a symptom of trauma,” said Michelle McMurray, president and CEO at Mental Health America Allegheny County. “I think they are conditions that make trauma more likely and these are the ones we need to mitigate.”
All of the professionals agreed there were disparities in how African-Americans are treated for mental health, whether do to a lack of access to services or unequal treatment by mental health professionals. Overall, only one-third of Americans with a mental illness or a mental health problem get care, but the percentage of African-Americans receiving needed care is only half that of Whites.
“In order for services to be equitable, you have to have access to them in the first place. In terms of those services being equitable, how do we ensure those services are appropriate. Even in terms of African-Americans there is so much diversity in what we’re dealing with,” McMurray said. “We do have information and knowledge in our own community so what we have done is tried to use that.”
“Disparities exist and our African-American children aren’t receiving equal treatment,” Dudley said. “I’ve worked at many different organizations and I’ve tried to bring racism into the conversation. Biases and racism still exists. No matter what your race is as a mental health professional, you have to be aware of culture.”
A 1996 survey commissioned by Mental Health America found 63 percent of African-Americans view depression as a personal weakness. Only 31 percent of African-Americans believed depression was a “health problem.”
“My research has focused on people’s attitudes toward seeking mental health services,” said Shirley Salmon-Davis, owner, Davis Family Counseling. “As African-Americans we believe life is tough; we should be able to deal with this. But I think we need to look at, how am I going to take care of myself in this environment. There’s a part of us taking care of ourselves and our families that’s very important.”
The meeting also focused on the role of mental health professionals in ensuring equitable mental health services. However, in 1998, only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers said they were African-American.
“As African-American mental health professionals, one of our problems is our own beliefs. Many of us who have ‘escaped the ghetto’ feel like we’re not touched by racism. The truth of the matter is African-Americans still get disparate services,” said Curtis Upsher, director, community relations, Community Care Behavioral Health. “There are issues here that we don’t like to look at.”