Do Whites Have a Mental-Health Edge?

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

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — Lisa Nicole Carson, the former star of Ally McBeal and Jason’s Lyric, seemed poised to address rumors swirling about her alleged battles with mental illness during her mysterious, decade-long absence from Hollywood. When asked directly by Essence Magazine in 2009 about rumors that she battled either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, she replied, “Honestly, it isn’t something I wish to discuss at this time, but I will say that it’s always been important for me to be a positive role model. I’m very rooted in the community and a child of the universe, so I definitely have to speak for my people.

“That was so negative and I never anticipated it. It just made me want to pull away. I couldn’t handle it. It was such a mess, and at one point trying to do battle with that and fight that war, I just couldn’t. Instead I chose to retreat so that I could realign myself and get a grip.”

Though Carson is certainly entitled to set boundaries regarding what she shares related to her own health, according to experts the unwillingness of black Americans to openly acknowledge and discuss mental-health issues is having a toxic impact on the entire community. But conversations with experts in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month (May) raise an even more startling possibility: that racial disparities in mental-health treatment have a direct impact on financial and educational disparities between racial groups, too.

“We treat it as a badge of shame,” said Terrie Williams, an African-American mental-health advocate, while white Americans “treat it as a badge of honor.”

The Challenges

The most common mental disorders involve depression, with nearly 20 million Americans suffering some form of major or mild depressive disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.” Additionally, “Some genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of several genes acting together with environmental or other factors. In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode.”

With black Americans leading the country with troubling statistics in areas like unemployment, child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence, all of which can exacerbate stress, it is perhaps not surprising that the community leads the country in mental-health struggles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, African Americans are still “more likely to experience a mental disorder than their white counterparts” but “less likely to seek treatment,” though Psychology Today recently noted that there has been an increase in the number of black Americans seeking treatment for ailments such as depression over the last decade. Men are less likely to seek treatment than women, regardless of race, meaning black men are among the least likely to seek treatment overall.

One of the main reasons African Americans are less likely to seek treatment for mental-health woes is the same reason black Americans are less likely to seek treatment for other health problems: economics. More than 20 percent of black Americans are uninsured. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “For those with insurance, coverage for mental-health services and substance-use disorders is substantially lower than coverage for other medical illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes.” But besides cost, one of the greatest barriers keeping black Americans from seeking treatment for mental illness may be history.