Do Whites Have a Mental-Health Edge?

During Mental Health Awareness Month, experts weigh in on how stigma hurts the black community.

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Gardere was referring to the now infamous experiment in which the United States government intentionally left hundreds of poor black men with syphilis untreated to monitor the progression of, and their ultimate demise from, the disease. The experiment, which was exposed in 1972, lasted decades and also left a lasting impression on many black Americans. Williams, who was a celebrity publicist before becoming a leading mental-health advocate, also cited the Tuskegee experiment as a deterrent to more black Americans reaching out for mental-health treatment.

But Gardere explained that overcoming this trust hurdle, and ultimately diversifying the patients seeking mental-health treatment, also requires diversifying the medical professionals treating them. "[There are] not enough black mental-health professionals who look like their patients," he said.

Another hurdle cited by Gardere and Williams is the church. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "In one study, approximately 85 percent of African-American respondents described themselves as 'fairly religious' or 'religious' and prayer was among the most common way of coping with stress." The challenge, however, comes when individuals coping with severe mental-health issues decide to try to pray them away instead of seeking medical help, a disconnect that doesn't exist to the same extent when it comes to diagnosing and treating physical ailments. But, Williams stressed, "It's not enough to just pray. God puts the right people in your life."

But Williams noted that in recent years, the church has begun to take a leadership role in addressing mental-health issues, much like it has in other important issues affecting the black community through the years. More churches have started establishing mental-health counseling on the premises.

"Church-based care increases access; you're working with ministerial staff, which builds trust, and the stigma gets reduced," said Williams. She applauded pastors who have begun mentioning their own experiences with counseling, further reducing stigma. Gardere added, "To the credit of our churches, not only do they have religious counselors who are trained to give spiritual advice, but they are also getting these counselors to retrain themselves to work in a more secular manner. As well, I can tell you there are many church groups who put me on their Rolodex or speed dial and refer church members. So right now we are really in a good place with the partnership of the church, spiritual counseling and secular counseling all coming together to meet the mental-health needs of their congregants and community."

The Larger Impact

Aside from the health benefits associated with mental-health treatment, Gardere cited other benefits that may be more tangible, at least in the eyes of some. When asked if he believed those who embrace mental-health treatment have an advantage in life over those who do not, he replied, "This is actually a great question. Communities that embrace mental-health services and mental wellness, sexual equality, basically anything that results in thinking intelligently and out of the box, will give you an advantage in life." He continued, "The point is the mental relief and edge you get from therapy puts you ahead of the pack in dealing with life's challenges. The person who is self-actualized is the one who will always be ahead of the pack."

Williams concurred, explaining that particularly in the black community, we have become accustomed to coping with severe trauma -- such as violence -- and then continuing with our lives as if nothing has happened. "Then we wonder why we can't concentrate at work or school," she said.

Williams was speaking from firsthand experience. She was one of the most powerful publicists in the country when she had what she described as "a breakdown." At the time, she was representing some of the biggest celebrities in America: Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis and Anita Baker. She began struggling just to get out of bed each day. Eventually friends coaxed her to a psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed her with clinical depression. Her quality of life improved significantly upon beginning treatment. But her life was truly changed when she went public with her story. While appearing on a panel airing on C-SPAN, she surprised herself and viewers by opening up about her mental-health experience.

She was inundated with letters from others who had been suffering in silence. "People are smiling, but dying inside," she told The Root. She authored the book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting, about her own journey and the black community's struggle to confront mental-health issues head-on. Since the book's publication, she has been contacted by thousands of readers, some of them prison inmates who open up to her in ways they haven't to anyone else. Some tell her that for the first time, they understand that what they failed to address mentally and emotionally years earlier made them explode physically with violence, resulting in their incarceration. This reinforces what Williams has long considered one of the greatest impediments to community healing: diagnosis.