Several days ago, while researching mental health awareness amongst various faith groups, the numbers of Americans—54 million—have some form of mentally illness. What I noted and highlighted in my research—in some cultures and communities—specifically among minorities—mental illness remains a subject of taboo and misunderstanding.
According to Dr. Donna Holland Barnes, a research associate and professor at Howard University’s Department of psychiatry and director of the suicide prevention program stated, “No one wants to think something is wrong with them…People don’t realize that the brain can malfunction just like any other organ in the body.”
In my early career and having worked in a substance abuse I was aware that substance abuse occurs across all spectrums of society. But it is also very important people educate themselves that mental health issues cover all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and geographical regions of origin. Yet so many people of color, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, far too frequently, face barriers to receiving… mental health care. The barriers come from two sides of the treatment program: (1) the patient who does not recognize that they may have symptoms that would indicate they are having mental health and substance abuse problems; and (2) the mental health practitioners themselves who may not be receptive to people of color and the foundations of their mental health issues.
The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), along with Howard University’s Department of Psychiatry, conducted Internet teleconferencing with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in 2010. Five HBCUs participated and talked about their mental health programs on campus. It was noted that the schools encourage people to eat well and exercise to maintain good mental health. However, the research also indicated that there were barriers that prevented minorities receiving needed mental health care. When we look at colleges and universities nationwide, this stigma remains true.
Typically, patients who are people of color usually lack knowledge about the signs, symptoms, and potential treatments that keep them from requesting mental health services. “Imagine experiencing racing thoughts that fly through your brain so quickly you can’t keep up. Or feeling abrupt, mood changes that take you quickly to the extremes. You might even hear a whisper or pounding that no one else hears and feel easily angered. Envision feeling like you have knowledge and abilities superior to everyone else’s and a need to act spontaneously, even urgently, despite the risks.” These are common symptoms of those experiencing some form of mental illness.
Sometimes it is a healthcare provider that is not receptive to people of color and do not ensure their staff is trained to recognize mental illness and substance abuse, though these two disorders are often linked. This phenomenon is not limited to doctor offices and hospital facilities, but also include the police, the courts, and social service agencies, and government officials who may be poorly trained in recognizing the relationship between mental illness and substance abuse issues.
Dr. William B. Lawson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Howard University Hospital (Howard’s College of Medicine), emphasized that stigma most often “prevents individuals and family members in minority communities from joining support groups.” He encourages “everyone to read more about mental illness”, and help increase knowledge about mental health across the board. This is not limited to just medications, but has to include all types of mental health and substance abuse services.
The late author Bebe Moore Campbell wrote about mental health and substance abuse issues in the black community. Dr. Judi Moore Latta, executive director of communications and marketing at Howard University, a personal friend of Ms. Campbell, said, “In our community(ies) we sweep things under the rug and people with mental illness are often stigmatized, isolated, ignored and overlooked.” She further elaborated, Ms. Campbell dedicated her books to doing something about the problem. Though Ms. Campbell died in 2006, it was through the efforts of her friends committed to see her vision take place, lobbied lawmakers in Congress. In 2008, a congressional resolution noted “that only about one in seven people in America [about 16.5 percent] who suffer from a mental disorder seek treatment and that African Americans are less likely than Caucasians to receive treatment.” Dr. Latta further elaborated to remind us, “Statistics show that minorities are much more likely to have a problem with the diagnosis because of racial issues and life conditions. We need to be aware, educate ourselves, share information and tell others.”
Ultimately, as a provider of pastoral counseling, I must emphasize how important it is for people of color to clearly understand the following: When they notice changes in (a) their own behaviors; or (b) note changes in the behaviors of their loved ones, whether family, friends, co-workers or close community members—they should take immediate action and seek help for themselves, or others. In order to make the situation better, you must follow through in getting mental health and/or substance abuse treatment for yourself or others.
 This is according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
 Howard University Health Magazine, CHECK Up, p. 4, (May 2011).
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute, a progressive Islamic institute with a think tank and a school.