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Mental Health and Stigma in the Black Community

Taking care of health means taking care of our whole selves. And mental health is integral to our whole health. We all deserve to feel safe, fulfilled, and peaceful.

Mental Health Stigma in The Black Community

Though rates of mental illness are often similar in Black populations compared to other races, there are often key differences in seeking and receiving care. One reason for this is stigma, or the negative beliefs and attitudes we attach to mental illness.

In mental health, there can be a double dose of stigma–both the stigma of having a mental illness or dealing with poor mental health, AND the stigma of seeking treatment.

We learn stigma through our personal experiences, socially from those around us, and through cultural messages via stories, TV and movies.

The Stigmas of Strength and Weakness

Culturally, our expectations of ourselves and each other can affect how we perceive mental health issues. Among many Black Americans, for example, there exists an expectation to be strong and resilient, and to be able to withstand struggle.

This has roots in the same thing that worsens mental health issues among Black Americans–a history of hardship, of violence, of microagressions and discrimination.

The reality of having to deal with systemic racism for generations has caused a feeling among many people that one should be able to withstand/get through/fix mental health issues.

As a result, poor mental health may be ignored or thought of as a weakness. In addition, seeking out help in the form of mental healthcare may also be perceived as a weakness.

Why Does Stigma Matter?

Stigma is making us sicker. It is a barrier to care, meaning it stands in the way of people seeking out, receiving and sticking with the evidence-based, culturally competent care they deserve. Those who hold stigma beliefs themselves are less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues.

But other people may also feel shame or fear about mental health issues due to the perceived judgment of peers, which can cause us to hide or try to ignore mental health issues.

This is one reason why only one in three African Americans who need mental health care receives it. This can cause them to not only worsen over time, but also lead to worsened mental health issues as well as other health disparities.

For example,

Black Americans are more likely than whites to report ongoing symptoms of emotional distress, like sadness and hopelessness. And this year has not helped.

Mental Health in 2020-2021

It’s not just you. Studies over the past year have shown dramatic increases in loneliness and psychological distress. Studies have shown worry or stress over the coronavirus to be the cause of changes in substance use, sleeping and eating patterns, and worsening of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes.

Negative mental health impacts are also felt related to job loss, burnout among frontline workers, and increased racial violence and tension.

The past year has seen marked increases also in anxiety, depressive disorder, and suicidal thoughts. These struggles are widespread, and they have real effects on our wellbeing, our relationships, our work and our health.

Strength to Seek Help

We’d like to reframe mental health stigma. It takes strength to be vulnerable, and it takes real conscious effort and regard for ourselves to take care of our mental wellness.

To quote research professor Brené Brown, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Stigma attached to mental health cannot prevail if we acknowledge it, talk about it and support each other empathetically without judgment.

This is interpersonal work as much as it is personal, because as Dr. Brown implies, we fight stigma when we can be open, accepting and generous in how we talk about and respond to mental illness.

Though we may personally recognize this to be true, those around us don’t always have the same understanding.

Talking about the things that weigh on us can be a great relief–but it may be that you don’t have someone around you who will be understanding or supportive. If that’s the case, there are options to explore yourself or with a trained professional.

The sections below include resources to find therapists, support groups, self-care routines, and app-based support.

Powerful Voices

Many Black celebrities have spoken up about their personal mental health, which serves as an important way to shine a light on the issue, normalize it and reduce the shame connected to it.

NFL star Brandon Marshall, who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2011, has been vocal about the role of stigma in mental health, as in an interview with Essence magazine:

“I used to think that mental health meant mental toughness and masking pain. I was raised in a community where you didn’t admit to any weakness. As a football player, you never show weakness to your opponent. But when you think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health

Religion and spirituality can help us to find community, to reflect and understand our experiences, and can provide a sense of hope. It can be a very positive contributor to health and wellness for some people.

However, sometimes trying to understand, or fix, mental health issues from a religious perspective can be unhelpful or further damaging, if they discount the medical or environmental causes, or attach misconceptions.

Mental health issues are not brought on us intentionally, and they should not be ignored or dismissed. If we frame health issues as a punishment or burden placed on people for a lack of faith or other reasons, we may be putting a sense of blame, shame or helplessness on that person, which only serves to hurt their mental health further.

No one deserves to suffer from mental health issues. In addition to one’s personal faith, we all deserve evidence-based care to treat and help us feel our best.

Mental Healthcare in Black Communities

Unfortunately, some of the gaps in seeking care are based on perceptions about mental health care that are real.

In the US, for example, there are lower rates of patient-centered communication with African American mental health patients, less culturally-competent mental healthcare providers, and dehumanizing care experienced by some patients. So it is less likely that those Black people who seek out mental health care will receive quality care. 

Given this reality, it’s so important for Black people to know the resources available to get high quality, culturally competent mental healthcare.

Prioritizing Mental Health Today: What Can You Do?

Mental health care will look different for different people. The sections below include ideas and resources for professional therapists, self-care tools and practices and support groups.

Talk to someone who gets it.

To find a quality provider near you, try Black community-centered therapist directories at

For financial assistance in seeking therapy, visit

Stay connected

One of the most basic ways to fight the isolation we feel is to stay connected with others. Social connection is related to lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, and better emotional regulation. It is also connected to a stronger immune system!

Thankfully, social connectedness does not mean we have to physically be with people–it can mean:

  • Phone or video calls
  • Virtual game or movie nights, or long-distance cooking sessions
  • Sending cards
  • Doing something kind for others
  • Long-distance workout accountability buddies
  • Meeting up safely outside, if possible.

The truth is that it’s more about our personal feeling of being connected with others, of not being isolated, than it is about the actual activity. What could make you feel more connected to people this week? 

Covid-19 has put tough limits on our ability to do our typical social activities, but we have to make that effort to connect in new ways.

Stay moving

Staying active, even with a quick walk or gentle stretching, will improve circulation and can improve mood.

Regular exercise can help decrease depression and anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is likely because of

  • Release of endorphins in our brain, which make us feel good
  • Increased confidence
  • Temporarily taking our mind off of worries
  • Coping in a positive, healthy way that is constructive
  • Increased social interaction (how about that long-distance workout accountability buddy?)

Can your family find a time to walk, dance, or follow an exercise video together? Maybe you want to use exercise as a reason to get some fresh air and have alone time.

Whatever the circumstance, fitting movement into your routine will help your mental health, and can be a meaningful part of self-care.

Find what’s right for you.

Mental health care may also look like simply making time for yourself to relax, to pause and reflect or emotionally recharge. You may try:

  • Meditation (there are many free apps that make it simple to try!)
  • Morning or evening journaling
  • Putting away devices for a digital detox
  • Creative activities at home.

One silver lining of the Covid-19 era is that many more resources have become available online, including many more therapists offering phone and video services.

But even if therapy is not the route you need to take, there are so many options available to support mental health no matter your need. See additional ideas and tools below.

Online support groups and additional tools:

The Bottom Line

Whether it is with a therapist, or using self-care methods like meditation, journaling, or support groups, help is here for you. Whatever it looks like, the bottom line is that mental health should be a priority for all of us.

It takes dedicated time, to connect with others, to get active, or to rest and reflect. None of us should have to suffer in silence, and by showing up for ourselves and our mental health, we show others in our community that it’s ok for them to do the same.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Mental Health Disparities: Diverse Populations. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/cultural-competency/education/mental-health-facts

Black and African American Communities and Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental Health America. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. (2015, August 7). Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/b/black-asian-and-minority-ethnic-bame-communities

Connect with a Therapist|Black Mental Health Alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://blackmentalhealth.com/connect-with-a-therapist/

Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection. (2014, May 9). The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/connectedness-health-the-science-of-social-connection-infographic/

Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495

Noonan, A. S., Velasco-Mondragon, H. E., & Wagner, F. A. (2016). Improving the health of African Americans in the USA: An overdue opportunity for social justice. Public Health Reviews, 37(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40985-016-0025-4

Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Muñana, C., Aug 21, P. C. P., & 2020. (2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. KFF. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

Therapy for Black Men. (n.d.). Therapy for Black Men. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://therapyforblackmen.org/

Ward, E. C., & Heidrich, S. M. (2009). African American women’s beliefs about mental illness, stigma, and preferred coping behaviors. Research in Nursing & Health, 32(5), 480–492. https://doi.org/10.1002/nur.20344

Ward, E., Wiltshire, J. C., Detry, M. A., & Brown, R. L. (2013a). African American Men and Women’s Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors. Nursing Research, 62(3), 185–194. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNR.0b013e31827bf533

Ward, E., Wiltshire, J. C., Detry, M. A., & Brown, R. L. (2013b). African American Men and Women’s Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors. Nursing Research, 62(3), 185–194. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNR.0b013e31827bf533

We Applaud These Black Celebs For Helping To Erase Mental Health Stigmas With Their Testimonies. (n.d.). Essence. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.essence.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/black-celebs-help-erase-mental-health-stigmas-encourage-therapy/

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