There’s often a fear of putting our business in the street . . . of somehow revealing too much. Black women often perceive going to a therapist as something we don’t do.
African American women have the highest mortality rate for heart disease and stroke and the highest prevalence of high blood pressure and obesity. Recent research indicates that mental health plays a role in these health disparities. While many black women know and discuss the threats to their physical health, when it comes to mental health, there’s often silence and inaction.
Many black women are struggling with mental health issues but are not seeking professional help. Improving black women’s access to mental health treatment as a crucial element to addressing the serious, but often manageable, illnesses plaguing their physical health.
Women Who Need Care Go Without
Despite the emotional and physical consequences of mental-health problems, black women are less likely to seek treatment. The percentage of African Americans overall who receive needed mental-health care is only half that of whites, according to a Surgeon General report on mental health. By some estimates, only 7 percent of black women suffering from depression receive any treatment, compared with 20 percent of the general population.
The California Black Women’s Health Project, released the results of a study of more than 1,300 African American women across the state. The subjects in the study revealed that they tended to repress feelings, let frustration build and release tension through tears or conflict. The findings of the study, which included a series of focus group discussions across the state, led to a launch of a mental health initiative to improve African American women’s acceptance of and access to mental health treatment.
It’s important for African American women to realize that self care is not selfish and you must take care of you so you can take care of others. It is also important to recognize something is wrong and you deserve to feel well.
Many Black women have a distrust and place a stigma that black women on mental-health treatment, in part from their difficulty in finding a therapist to whom they can readily relate. African Americans comprise less than 6 percent of mental-health care providers nationally. Overcoming this shortage may be crucial to improving treatment outcomes for African American women. In my work in the mental health field, I have found from interviews with clients that mental-health practitioners “don’t get it when they are working with people who don’t look like them.”
African American women also struggle against the stigma associated with mental-health treatment.
One study found that the proportion of African Americans who feared mental-health treatment was more than twice that of whites, according to the surgeon general’s report. Part of the fear stems from wariness of the medical establishment that arises from past abuses, such as the Tuskegee experiment. (In 1932, the federal government sponsored a study to examine the impact of untreated syphilis involving black men. The experiment went on until 1972 without the test subjects’ knowledge and most of the subjects died without receiving treatment.) As a result of the distrust engendered by the now-infamous experiment and the stigma associated with seeking help, many black women rely on spiritual leaders and community members to handle personal problems. There’s also an added pressure from the ethic of the strong black woman, a cultural value that promotes toughness and self-sacrifice. They often think ‘My mother suffered. My grandmother suffered. It’s just the lot of black women in America. It doesn’t have to be that way.
There’s a deep-seated feeling that going to seek professional help is a sign of weakness. These ideas and feelings must change in order for all women to function at their best ability.