Black Mental Health Matters: Why We Need To Talk About It In The Black Community


For many of us, this year has been one to remember while, for others, it’s been purely heartbreaking.

Suicide has become somewhat of a “trend” on Facebook Live in the recent months.

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Headline after headline, we are discovering that so many of us struggle with deep depression or mental illnesses from which we see no way out of.

On January 22, 14-year old Naika Venant hanged herself on Facebook Live from her bathroom shower at three in the morning. Some hours before, her alleged mother had made a Facebook post in which she wrote, "I was showing you tough love when you misbehaved." At this time, there are no further details pinpointing what led Naika to take her own life.

The very next day, on January 23, up-and-coming actor, Frederick Jay Bowdy, who had recently been accused of sexual assault, also committed suicide on Facebook Live. His last post on Instagram - a picture of himself - was captioned: “Just me being me and staying ready for all the challenges.”

According to Mental Health America, in the time between when an individual first experiences symptoms of a mental illness and when they first receive treatment, 84% of it is spent not recognizing the symptoms at all.

The past few years in general have been quite a wake up call to the nation of how prevalent mental health issues are within the Black community. In August 2013, Lee Thompson Young, was found dead in his apartment. He shot himself in the head. According to various reports, Young had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his teenage years. When an individual suffers from bipolar disorder, his or her mood, on a spectrum, could at times, go from being on the really high end to being on the really low end. And when it’s on the really low end, the person’s depressive moods can last for as long as two weeks.

Sadly, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and, on average, 121 suicides are committed per day.

People like Young may have struggled with mental illnesses quietly in an effort to keep up with their images of success. He was the star of a popular Disney Channel series, “Jett Jackson,” and graduated from USC in 2005 with honors. He would also go on to appear in a number of successful hit tv shows.

Young’s actions at the time of his death speak volumes to the infectious stigma associated with mental illnesses in the Black community, especially amongst Black men. In 2014, the death rate from suicide was more than 4 times greater for Black men than for Black women. In a 2013 study conducted by Ward, Wiltshire, Detry, and Brown, their findings indicated that African American women were “significantly more psychologically open and receptive to seeking professional help compared to men”, although this may be attributed to women having higher levels of education overall.

Mental illnesses may be caused by genetics or may be the result of an individual’s environment. The United States department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reported that compared to whites, African Americans are 10% more likely to report having serious psychological distress. When compared to the general population, we are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health illnesses. These illnesses may include severe anxiety, major depression, suicide, or PTSD, all of which can lead to a host of physical problems. Even more, because of the stigma associated with mental health illnesses, many sufferers may turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with their emotions as opposed to medical professionals, ultimately decreasing their chances of getting better.

Last March, Oakland native and Grammy Award-nominated artist, Kehlani, attempted to take her own life following allegations of cheating in a relationship. Barely a month before, MarShawn McCarrel, a well-known activist and co-founder of the non-profit organization, Pursuing Our Dreams, shot himself on the statehouse steps in Columbus, Ohio. His last Facebook post somewhat foreshadowed his suicide as he wrote, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” McCarrel was only one of the many political activists who have taken or thought of taking their lives due to the intense psychological and physical distress that many activists experience.

In 2014, the Census Bureau estimated that African Americans made up 13.2% of the U.S. population. Of these 6.8 million plus people, about 1.1 million had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year. Included are many of the 1 million African Americans incarcerated in United States prisons or jails and the 40% or so African Americans who make up the homeless population.

Problems like neighborhood violence, financial distress, or homelessness can push individuals to the brink of hopelessness where leaving the world feels like the best solution. What exacerbates these problems even further is the institutional racism and structural oppression that removes fathers and mothers from homes, prevents African Americans from receiving proper or any form of medical care, and funnels Blacks out of the workforce.

How can we change the perception of mental health in the Black community? Share in the comments
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Ariel is a 23-year old SoCal native, working professional, and Alumna of the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Sociology and through her studies, acquired a passion for gaining knowledge that would improve the quality of her life and further allow her to interact with and touch people in a positive way. You can follow her own blog, The Freewoman Diaries, at www.thefreewomandiaries.com

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