For Mental Health Awareness week, BLACK ENTERPRISE is interviewing numerous individuals within the wellness community to talk about the racial disparities that affect the Black community in the hopes of creating a safe place to talk about mental health.
According to a new study by the Commonwealth Fund, Latinx and Black people are among the groups with the highest risk for mental health concerns due to the impact of the COVID-19: roughly 40% of Latino and Black people reporting mental health issues to the pandemic as oppose to 29% of white people.
For Dr. Shaun Fletcher, the findings aren’t surprising. The professor and mental health advocate spoke about the mental health discourse within the Black community for his 2018 TEDx Talk, highlighting how depression and anxiety specifically affect young Black Americans.
BE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic and protests negatively impacted young Black Americans in terms of mental health?
Dr. Fletcher: The confluence of COVID and social unrest sparked by police shootings of young Black people can have significant negative consequences. African Americans are already 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population (Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health), and our children are more likely to be exposed to violence and violent crimes, which are risk factors of mental health anxiety. It stands to reason that seeing more violence and social unrest in our communities only exacerbates those contributing risk factors.
Access to–and trust in–the health care system has been a historical barrier for the Black community, and now with COVID restrictions, many aren’t able to have regular access to culturally familiar mental health coping mechanisms, like family, community, and faith-based gatherings. On top of that, many young Black Americans are trying to reconcile their place in the fight for social justice, which can bring about undue emotional labor, cultural taxation, and even imposter syndrome. All of which are associated with significant mental health anxiety.
With more public figures talking openly about their mental health struggles, do you think more young Black Americans are changing their opinions of mental health? Why or why not?
Yes, I do. We’ve long-realized the power of the media and cultural representation in shaping and shifting opinions on critical subjects. Mental health is no different. While we still have more work to do in terms of surmounting historical barriers to mental health access and utilization, I believe we are certainly moving in the right direction. Celebrities and influencers often serve as cultural gatekeepers in “normalizing” what may have been culturally taboo topics like mental health and suicide prevention.
We’ve seen public figures across sport and entertainment begin to do that, along with including mental health care as an option in their advocacy for quality health care for the Black community, in general. Through generational knowledge-gaining and actively confronting barriers to self-care, younger generations are far less saddled with the obstacles that their parents and grandparents faced. Feelings of embarrassment, isolation, and weakness stigmas can be challenged when credible public figures speak up about their own personal issues with mental health. I hope to see more public figures have the courage to speak out and empower those who may feel they’re alone.
How can schools be of better service when their students express they are dealing with mental health issues?
Schools can provide more mental health practitioners as well as more mental health advocacy resources to continue the normalization of self-care as a standard in our society. Preventative care should be as important as responsive care. I also feel it’s extremely important that we provide our students and communities with culturally representative and competent mental health practitioners. Lack of culturally competent health care practitioners has been shown to have negative impacts on health outcomes in communities of color, including misdiagnosis. I’ve spoken with students who met with a mental health specialist and left feeling unheard and unseen due to cultural incompetence and sensitivity. Representation also matters in mental health care as much as any other field.
It is National Suicide Prevention Month. Recent studies have shown that more and more younger Black adults have experience dealing with thoughts of suicide. How can we be more supportive toward those in our circle who may be struggling?
I believe supporting others begins with taking inventory of our mental health status and feelings regarding mental health care. It’s incumbent upon any support system to not only be aware and sensitive to the needs of someone struggling but also to know the levels of support needed. We must educate ourselves on the resources available and when to access them. Many of the needs of someone struggling with mental health can be addressed within the confines of their inner circle, while others require the support of licensed professionals.
Understanding the risk factors and warning signs in behavior, mood, and conversation can help us all be equipped to support a loved one in need. While educating oneself is extremely important, having the courage to act once the warning signs begin to show is equally, if not more critical. I can speak from personal experience that seeking professional help or calling the national suicide prevention hotline on behalf of a loved one can be scary, but it can also save their life. In my opinion, the responsibility to support the mental health of a loved one comes along with the social contract of love and friendship.
What are some challenges you see when dealing with students who are hesitant to reach out for help?
Many students are struggling to find balance during these unusual times. For many, it has only complicated the underlying challenges they already faced. Balancing personal obligations with their jobs and schoolwork has reached a dangerous peak. Students are facing financial difficulties and lost jobs, which won’t allow some to register on-time or adequately prepare for school or even meet their living standards. Finding the strength and words to articulate those very personal challenges can create even more mental anxiety than the actual challenges themselves.
For others they are very concerned about their futures, with a lack of internships and entry-level jobs available. Not only has it altered their career and personal goal trajectory, for some, it has impacted their ability to earn a living to support themselves and their families. I’ve seen this manifest in poor attendance, lack of engagement and withdrawal, and even potentially over-disclosing of very personal information. Even when students can’t articulate the need for help, the signs are usually there–we simply need to remain sensitive and open to support.