Silence Is Deadly: Mental Health and the Black Community

The first lady of New York City shares two personal stories—about a father’s shame and a daughter’s pain—to illustrate the overwhelming need to talk about mental health in the African-American community.

Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray, son Dante de Blasio and daughter Chiara de Blasio after voting at a public library branch on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2013, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My father was a quiet man, but not because he didn’t have stories to tell. 

Robert McCray was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1924. He never knew his father. His formal education ended after the 12th grade, but he earned advanced degrees in what he called “the school of hard knocks.” After serving his country in World War II, he returned to a society where a black man could rise only so high. Through decades of hard work and sacrifice, he and my mother managed to beat the odds and create a stable and loving home for my siblings and me. But despite all that, there was still little he could do when I came home from school distraught because my white classmates had shunned me.

My father’s story may sound familiar to many of you. Poverty, instability and discrimination are the shaky foundations of too many lives in our community, both past and present. They are also leading risk factors for depression, the disease lurking behind my father’s quiet.

Dad would not have called it depression. He never said a word about the pain he was experiencing, and he wasn’t alone. Back then, people didn’t talk about mental-health challenges—especially black folks. We hid our pain. We disguised it. We toughed it out. We kept our upper lips stiff as broomsticks. With the odds already stacked against us, we couldn’t afford to show what was considered weakness or lack of willpower.

That’s what we thought, anyway. But in truth, silence ultimately costs far more than speaking up. Today, African Americans are 20 percent more likely than their white counterparts to report experiencing serious psychological distress. And yet we are 40 percent less likely to have received mental-health treatment or counseling in the past year.

Here’s what that means in real life: Millions of African Americans suffer from a mental-health condition and do not get the treatment they need to live a full and productive life.

We can do better. And there is no time to waste. Getting our loved ones to treatment and getting them there early can improve and transform their lives. 

A first step is to work with our leaders in government to expand the network of evidence-based practices like peer counseling and support groups. We need more health care workers who understand our culture and can help us access services where we live. We need to raise awareness so that people realize that anxiety, depression, substance-use disorders and other mental-health ailments are common. And they are all treatable.

Here in New York City, with the leadership of my husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, we are starting to put those solutions into place. I recently had the privilege of announcing that the city will invest $78.3 million annually to provide counselors and treatment to the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including children, families living in homeless shelters and the survivors of domestic violence. Our goal is to create a truly inclusive mental-health system that can serve as a model. This investment is just the first step.

We also need to make a communitywide commitment to share our personal stories and encourage others to do the same. Speaking our pain aloud is often the first step toward healing. It is also the only way to end the deadly myth that mental-health challenges are rare and shameful.