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Overcoming Mental Health Stigma In The African American Community

Written by Donzetta Seals, mental health advocate and volunteer with NAMI Oklahoma

Before my daughter was diagnosed with depression, which eventually became a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder I really didn’t know much about mental health. In fact, I actually used to say, “Black people don’t get mental illness.” Now, after years of learning about mental illness and working with NAMI Oklahoma, the state organization for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I realize some of the stigma in the community I grew up in that led me to this inaccurate thought.

Growing up in an African American community we just didn’t talk about the issue of mental health. As an adult I realize that there were people I knew who probably had mental health struggles. However, years ago that was not something that was openly discussed. Information about mental health was not readily available and access to care, specifically what care was available, was not information that was widely known. Thankfully when my daughter began her journey toward mental health, I found the NAMI Oklahoma Journey of Hope program.

When I completed the 12 week program I realized how much I had gotten out of it and I wanted to give back. So I began to reach out to African Americans to try to get them involved in mental health programs. It might seem an easier task for someone who is an African American to reach out to others, but that was not the case. I found a general lack of trust within the black community not just against white people, or authority, but also against other African Americans. Building trust is proving to be a long process. I sponsored a NAMI 12 week Family to Family education class with the NAMI Oklahoma affiliate NAMI Tulsa geared toward African Americans, however all the attendees were from other races.

It even seems that organizations with the goal of helping people have trouble trusting each other. Often, I’ve found multiple organizations trying to do the same job because they don’t trust that the other organization is accomplishing the necessary goals.

Another roadblock I have come up against is proving I have the training and resources to help people. Most of the African Americans I have seen seek treatment are strong black women. They have a secure self-image and confidence they have gained through success. They feel able to face, address and advocate for the mental health issues of their loved ones. However, many people of all races advocating for their loved ones are lacking the support they need. Without a support system gaining and maintaining good mental health becomes an unnecessarily difficult struggle. It took many years for my daughter to get the correct diagnosis and a successful treatment plan, and that is the case for most people struggling with mental illness.

In order to gain backing from the African American community, health professionals and organizations need to make mental health more accessible and less daunting to navigate. I have found that offering things like Zumba classes and game nights have been a great way to get people in the door. Presentation can make a big difference in gaining community involvement. Changing that in addition to getting the African American community talking more openly and trusting those who can help them can make a positive change in the mental health of the next generation.

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