Why Is Mental Health Still Taboo In the Black Community?

By Shammara Lawrence

If you have spoken up about your mental health recently, you’re not alone: for many, the topic is finally being destigmatized, and thanks in part to social media, plenty of us are finding and making room to express their feelings. Yet there is still work to be done for a number of people — namely, in the Black community, where talking about mental health can still feel largely taboo.

A major reason for this comes down to cultural teachings, and the reality that many members of the community don’t have the resources to learn and understand the topic. Black parents can often instill into their children the belief that we must always be resilient no matter what hurdles we face, and many of us are encouraged to lean on our spirituality during our low moments rather than seek out support from mental health professionals. When someone decides to be vulnerable about what they’re going through, they are often labeled as weak by their peers and elders — especially men, given that they are conditioned since adolescence through the media and family members to never cry or show emotion. As a result, many Black men become hesitant to talk about their mental health struggles with anyone, let alone a therapist: According to the CDC, men of color aged 18 to 44 who experience daily feelings of depression or anxiety are 26.4% less likely than white men to utilize mental health treatments like medication or therapy.

One way to ensure that we begin to heal is to have more open conversations about mental health within the Black community. For MTV News’s inaugural Sound On panel, we invited athlete Rashad Jennings, writer Clarkisha Kent, actor Kendrick Sampson, rapper Kodie Shane, and activist Kat Blaque to come together for a roundtable discussion. Each with different backgrounds and points of view on several intense topics, they were all game to speak about the importance of looking after your mental health and seeking out support when you need it.

As Sampson, who has worked on How to Get Away With Murder and Insecure, notes, Being a person of color in this country, no matter where you grew up, you’re still born into a hostile environment.” Specifically, Black people frequently have to deal with racialized trauma from the issues they face as a result of structural racism and inequalities.

It’s a trauma that can manifest in a host of mental health issues, including basic stress. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress in the form of conditions like major depression, PTSD, and anxiety than non-white Latinx people.

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That stress can affect you both IRL and through digital screens. On the news and social media, black people are constantly being bombarded with images and videos of brutalized black bodies, which can take a toll on anyone. Back when I was a kid, I couldn’t see somebody get shot. I’ve never seen nobody die. Now my little brother can watch a person get shot [online]. It’s crazy when I think about that,” Shane, who dropped her debut album Young Heartthrob in 2018, points out. All of the panelists admitted to having either dealt with mental health issues and trauma in their lives or know someone close to them who have.

They’re far from alone, yet despite the rising number of Black people dealing of psychological distress every year, as a collective we have a very low rate of seeking out professional help, partially because of the prevailing belief that asking for a helping hand means you’ve failed as a person. “I think there’s a lot of pride with a lot of people [and] the reason they don’t want to get counseling. Sometimes you see it as a form of weakness. That’s a myth that a lot of people buy into,” says Jennings, a former NFL running back and Dancing with the Stars champion.

Moreover, when you’re being raised around people who sometimes speak negatively about you, you can go years with living with internalized self-loathing that becomes a part of your daily life. As a young woman, Kent used to get grief about her weight from her parents. “I’m a big girl and I’m OK with that. But my parents are like, not really. So there was a lot of fat antagonism,” the writer recalls. “Even though I’m out of that environment now, the way my depression specifically manifests is that you still hear that negative talk but now it’s coming from [within].”

Without a support system of individuals who can empathize and offer guidance, many Black people find themselves self-medicating, or going into isolation in order to cope. But such strategies can only help for so long — and those coping mechanisms can negatively impact someone’s life in the long run.

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Jennings knows that reality all too well. His father, a military veteran, suffered with undiagnosed PTSD after retiring on disability and refused to go to counseling for years, the younger Jennings now notes. “He didn’t want anybody else giving their opinion about what he was going through. And he acted out in other ways … He drank every single day. He smoked cigarettes every single day. [And] he slowly started to separate himself from the family,” Jennings explains. It was only when he saw his son blossom into a successful and mature individual that Jennings’s dad began to adopt healthy habits in his own life.

There isn’t any one fix for mental health issues, however, and even when someone is open to getting assistance, they can often feel hindered by the high medical costs that often come along with professional help. I remember when I was in college and I was looking at different therapies that I could go to, it was expensive,” Blaque, a YouTube creator and activist, says. “Therapy sessions were hundreds of dollars. And I was a college student.”

Indeed, therapists typically charge between $75 to $150 a session, sometimes upwards of $200. And while many insurance companies typically cover most kinds of therapy, you still have to pay a monthly fee to be insured. Additionally, many therapists elect not to take insurance because of the challenges that come with filing mental-health related claims, so patients are often left having to pay out of pocket.

Thankfully, there are numerous low-cost and free mental health resources out there for people experiencing distress. It’s good to talk about your emotions, it’s good to cry,” Jennings stresses. “Get it all out, and [then] start to move forward.” Your life and mental health matter — and one of the best ways to take issues into your own hands is to speak up, and join the conversation.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.

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