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Tag Archives: Awareness

African-Americans & The Myth of Mental Illness

This series on mental illness began with my story. I wasn’t sure of the approach that I would take for this post, but I’ve decided after very recent conversations to state (simply) why African-Americans should worry about Mental Illness.

Mental Illness? That’s a “White” thing!

This phrase is what started it all. By “it,” I’m not only speaking of this series but also why African-Americans are less likely to seek services that deal with behavior and cognitive issues. Given our history in this country, it isn’t difficult to understand the apprehension behind getting professional help (counseling or whatever). Historically, science was used by the “Majority” as a justification for the maltreatment of non-Whites. The study of evolution was used to justify the separation of racial/ethnic groups, as well as the subservient status of non-Whites (a theory known as Social Darwinism). Those who were associated with these theories were the leading voices in biology, eugenics, medicine, philosophy/psychology. Additionally, the United States has a notorious history behind using African-Americans for trial studies, health, and social experiments (see the relatively unknown Tuskegee Experiment; Human Experimentation in the US). This has led to a distrust of those outside of our community, as well as the thinking that what affects “them” can’t affect “us.” With respect to Mental Illness, this can’t be further from the truth.

Mental Illness Has a Look

Unfortunately, many of us seem to believe that you can look at someone and tell if they need psychiatric help. We believe that if you are well put-together (your hair, clothes, and shoes look nice), drive a nice car, live in a nice place, and have a job, then you are happy and have no problems.

 This can’t be further from the truth.

Mental health agencies (such as National Alliance on Mental Illness) acknowledge that as a group, African-Americans are disproportionately more likely to experience social circumstances that increase their chances of developing a mental illness (source). We need to be aware of the indicators and risk factors that lead to mental illness as it has been shown that a mental break can be a culmination of life experiences (sudden onset of a disease are often triggered by a major event but experiences increase susceptibility to disorders).

What does this mean?

Besides the obvious “any one of us can suffer,” it means that we need to be aware AND actively work to change the stigma. Some facts to be aware of:

  • tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support, rather than turning to health care professionals, even though this may at times be necessary.African Americans
  • Across a recent 15 year span, suicide rates increased 233% among African Americans aged 10 to 14 compared to 120% among Caucasian Americans in the same age group across the same span of time.

  • African Amemicans comprise 40% of the homeless population and only 12% of the U.S. population. People experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk of developing a mental illness.
  • Nearly half of all prisoners in the United States are African American. Prison inmates are at a high risk for developing mental illness.
  • Children in foster care and the child welfare system are more likely to develop mental illnesses. African American children comprise 45% of the public foster care population.
  • Exposure to violence increases the risk of developing a mental illness; over 25% of African American children exposed to violence meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.


As a community, we need to move towards a mindset of acceptance and open communication. Rmember that mental illness exists and it can happen to anyone.

An Open Letter to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)

**Here’s is a letter that I submitted to the CBC. Feedback is welcomed.**

FACT: As of November 2009, the unemployment rate for Blacks/African-Americans was 15.6%, while the rest of the nation was at 10.0%. (Source: United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

FACT: In 2007, 19.5% of Blacks/African-Americans in comparison to 10.4% of non-Hispanic whites were uninsured; 49% of Blacks/African-Americans used employer-sponsored health insurance; and finally, 23.8% of Blacks/African-Americans relied on public health insurance. (Source: United States Department of Health & Human Services, The Office of Minority Health).

FACT: The total number of black students enrolled in higher education in 2007 was 2,383,400. The number of Black men in undergraduate programs in 2007 was 870,000, while the number of Black men incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons was 837,000. Percentage of all high school students who graduate on time who are black equaled12.1%; while the percentage of all students who drop out of high school in tenth grade who are black equaled 36.7%. Between the 1997-98 and 2007-08 years, college tuition rates rose a total of 30%. (Source: United States Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics).

Given these dismal numbers, I understand your frustration with our President during this time of economic strife, as you feel he is not taking a special interest in the community which you were elected to represent. However, I feel that you are unfairly placing blame on his shoulders. Keep in mind that President Obama has only formally served in this capacity since January 20, 2009. Since taking his oath, he has accomplished considerable feats. Nine days after taking office, he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which overruled the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and so eased the requirements for filing employment discrimination lawsuits. Five days later, he signed the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover an additional 4 million children currently uninsured. He nominated current Justice Sotomayor in May of 2009 to replace the retiring Justice Souter and she became the first Latina and third woman to serve as a Justice. He also signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act this past October.

I highlight these key acts, a few among many, because the legislation focuses on two key minority groups: women and those most likely to suffer from hate crimes. The importance – the majority of your constituents can be identified as belonging to those groups, so celebrate those acts.

Finally, and this is arguably the most important point that I can make. The most significant piece of legislation that our President signed, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, became a law in February of this year. As you are aware, this was a $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the economy recover from the deepening worldwide recession.

I’ve drawn your attention to these few things because I want to remind you that now is not the time to be unreasonable in negotiating with our President, as well as the rest of Congress. Change your scope from exclusively focusing on what you feel to be the shortcomings of our President. Help your constituents by pressuring states to remember their stressed communities. History has shown us that even at a President’s urging and support of legislation with an emphasis on minority communities, especially that of the African-American community, the call for equality and humane treatment can fall on deaf ears of the state. Your tactics in playing “hardball” with our President will only further hurt the communities that elected you to representation.

As a constituent who considers herself fairly informed about issues, I would like to offer my suggestions on how you can help our community by highlighting a few key issues:

With the African-American unemployment rate being almost double that of the national unemployment rate, special attention should be paid to economic policies. With regards to these policies: encourage and lobby states to focus on improving urban communities (i.e., paving roads, painting buildings, maintaining street lights, etc).  Remind them that their Black constituents are vital to a thriving economy and convince them that businesses with a large minority employee base should be recruited to serve as contractors in these endeavors. This will in turn create some of the jobs that your constituents need.

With regards to health policies, stand firm and support a public option! One of the fastest ways to accrue debt is to accumulate medical expenses and not be able to pay for them. In the expansion of health care debate, it is critical that you support the BEST option for your constituents, even if this means that a special focus is not placed on them. Remember that 19.5% of the African-American population is without coverage and that another 23% of your constituents rely heavily on government sponsored programs. Additionally, 15.7% of our youth lack necessary health coverage, a statistic relayed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and their KIDS Count Initiative.

With regards to educational policies, push for increasing Pell Grant amounts that are sent to schools and discourage states from freezing or reducing the amount of money set aside for higher education. Instead, persuade states to continue to implement programs that will keep students in school at all levels (from Elementary to College) and remind them of the words of former President Kennedy, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” With the cost of higher education continuing to rise and available financial aid remaining the same, students who do not have the personal economic means to pay for education may face the decision of continuing their education or relinquishing this opportunity with the hopes of “something better”. Remember these students. Remember that they are your constituents.

In closing, I would like to applaud your collective efforts and the things that you have been able to accomplish. Now is NOT the time to present a fractured picture of our Black congressional leaders to our nation. It’s best that you show your support for our President and his goals, and admonish him ONLY when necessary (preferably in private).  Finally, encourage states to take a special and vested interest into their struggling communities and remember that the fate of the Black community is inherently tied to the well-being of our neighbors. This is a fact that you must understand and keep in mind as your continue to fulfill your duties in the D.C.

Once again, thank you for your service and commitment. I hope that these words are met with serious consideration.

Respectfully submitted,

Courtney J. Hardwick
A Concerned Citizen

© December 14, 2009.