Mental health has come to the forefront of conversation as many have had to take a deeper look at emotions and the ability to cope during extra-ordinary circumstances surrounding COVID-19. With a spotlight shining on mental health, it is imperative that the light is shined equally on all communities as mental health affects individuals of every age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, education level and religion. Support for mental health is increasingly more important in the black community than ever because of COVID-19 and the social change initiatives that began in 2020.

Based on a 2018 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2018, 16% of black people have reported having a mental illness, and 22.4% of those individuals reported having a serious mental illness. In black adults ages 18-25, major depressive episodes increased by 3.3% in a three-year span between 2015 and 2018. In addition to this, 9.5% of black people in this age group had serious thoughts about suicide – a 3.5% jump since 2008. These statistics point to a concerning upward trend in mental health issues in the black community among the college aged students pointing to evidence that more consideration should be placed on resources for this population to help address the new stress of college life on top of the pressures of being black in America.

While conversations about mental health are becoming more common within younger generations, there continues to be a stigma around mental health in the black community among the older population. A common stigma associated mental health problems with weakness. Many black college students have experienced this stigma growing up with elders downplaying the importance of mental health. Many were introduced to unhealthy coping mechanisms, particularly black males, such as urging children to not cry, to “shake it off” or to have stronger faith.

To end the negative stigma around mental health in the black community, we must begin to change the conversation around what it means to be mentally healthy. Having open discussions about the importance of mental health, especially as a black youth, is a start to decreasing that stigma and encouraging others to speak up about the mental challenges they face.

The conversation has already begun among celebrities and professional athletes. Last fall, Cowboy’s quarterback Dak Prescott spoke about his struggles with depressions and performing daily activities after his brother died from suicide. There was overwhelming support for Prescott. The push-back against people claiming Prescott was “weak” brought even more celebrities to the forefront showing admiration for Prescott, opening up about their own struggles and encouraging others to seek help.

Even with the conversations started, action must be taken in order to help the black community feel more comfortable and open in talking about their mental health. A major factor in the black community’s perception of mental health is the lack of access to quality healthcare. With obstacles to getting healthcare and stretched resources available for mental health resources, many in the black community have nowhere to turn when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. Rather, many lean into unhealthy ways of coping or turn to spiritual advisor who can not offer the degree of care that is needed, which can lead to greater feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt.

Diverse representation among mental health professionals is also a detrimental factor in the black community accessing help. As of 2018, “less than 2 percent of American Psychological Association members are Black or African American” according to Mental Health America. The lack of black professionals who can relate to social and cultural challenges unique to their community makes it harder for young black people to get help. This demographic wants to talk about their mental health struggles without the fear of feeling judged or concerns of bias. Being able to talk to someone relatable and who you can be mutually vulnerable are the key factors to making this demographic feel more comfortable in seeking professional help.

Reaching the 18-25 demographic now, particularly in the black community, is pivotal in changing the course of future generations and their outlook on mental health. This can only be done by actively listening to their challenges and providing this demographic with the necessary and appropriate outlets that make them comfortable and able to access quality care. By widening the window of opportunity within our minority demographics, we will see more individuals of all demographics begin to willingly and openly start to embrace and discuss the importance of mental health.

This article was written by Nic Hayes, a junior at Millsaps College, was an intern for Canopy’s Public Relations and Development Departments during Fall 2020. Our interns were given the task of developing a project that addressed mental health challenges on a college campus. They were given the freedom to develop their own projects. This article resulted from Nic’s research. The interns also created an insightful video podcast that is located on Canopy’s YouTube Channel.

References: Mental Health America. (2020). Black and African American Communities and Mental Health. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health.