Why Aren’t More African Americans Opening Up About Their Mental Health?  

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Aliya S. King confides in her mom about everything—except her mental health. Her mom, Rita Moore King, realizes that her generation will have to do better.

Generic image
Generic image iStock

Aliya’s turn:

A few days ago, I told my mom that I had been “feeling a bit down.” She gave me some words of support and I felt better.

But it took me weeks to share that with my mom. And when I did, I played it down so that she wouldn’t know that it was a bit more intense than just “feeling a bit down.” Even though I know she’s nothing but 100 percent supportive of anything I might be going through, I don’t usually confide in her when it comes to mental health.

I wouldn’t think twice about sharing any physical ailments with my mom. So why do I keep things like depression to myself?

In the black community, we are still struggling to instill the goal of good mental health. For many years, talking about depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia just wasn’t done. We didn’t even use the right terminology for mental-health issues. It was often just, “He’s crazy” or “She’s got a screw loose.”

Today, when commercials for antidepressants flood the airwaves and therapy has less of a stigma attached, American culture as a whole has reached a different place in mental-health treatment. So why is it that so many black men and women still see therapy and/or medication as a moral failing?

Part of it is how much our culture is rooted in the church. So many of us were taught that religion and spirituality were the solution to any problem. But though we’d never be expected to simply pray in order to deal with cancer or a broken limb, somehow, praying away mental-health issues has often been believed to be the way to cure them.

Another barrier is our need for privacy. Black folks are used to keeping their problems to themselves, and the idea of putting our business in the street has always been distasteful. So instead of speaking out about our pain, we hold it in and keep our chins up, no matter what we’re going through.

Also, many of us are already distrustful of the medical profession as a whole (and with good reason). Our past is littered with forced sterilization and medical testing and other atrocities that have led many in our communities to forgo many types of medical care, including mental health.

The push, particularly for black women, to be high-achieving superheroes representing their gender and their ethnicity in the best-possible light also keeps us from seeking help. While one would think that people with high levels of education and professional success would be more likely to seek professional treatment for mental health, the opposite is actually true. The American Psychological Association has found that African Americans with higher levels of education are actually less likely to receive mental-health treatment.