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Culture & Religion

Black Mental Health Is Different From White Mental Health

Mental illness is not one-size-fits-all. Just look at the state of mental health in the black community, which is replete with unique and systemic issues.

Big Think and the Mental Health Channel are proud to launch Big Thinkers on Mental Health, a new series dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.

Mental illness is not one-size-fits-all. One’s race, tribe, values, and upbringing will all play a major role in honing the mold for mental illness. Case in point: We recently asked Dr. Michael Lindsey, mental health researcher and associate professor at the Silver School of Social Work at NYU, to discuss the state of mental health in the African-American community. Here’s what he had to say:

“When you talk about mental illness in the black community, I think you have to begin with the experience of trauma and how trauma continues to abound in their experiences in their daily lives.”

The values and experiences unique to certain communities will determine the state of mental illness within them. For African-Americans, Lindsey points to the vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. It’s been 150 years since slavery ended yet its echo still travels like an unceasing wave throughout the country. Not only are the scars of slavery passed down through culture, there may be genetic manifestations too. 

Called epigenetic inheritance, a new study has found that Holocaust survivors passed down scarred genes to their descendants—scars caused by extremely stressful conditions. Thus the collective experiences of a people become individualized, passed down person by person from one generation to another. Lindsey further points to internal factors that exacerbate the already-draining aspects of mental illness:

“I think that what happens for a lot of individuals is that they suffer in silence with respect to having a mental illness. And so what I mean by that — in the greater society there’s certainly a lot of stigma associated with mental illness. It’s sort of antithetical to the American ethic, which is to be strong and courageous; to pull yourself up by the bootstraps; to weather the storm, et cetera.”

This is an altogether familiar state of mind within the black community. Writer Phoebe Gavin, who focuses primarily on race and gender, watched Dr. Lindsey’s video and left the following comment on our Facebook page:

Both Lindsey and Gavin acknowledge the damage caused by the chronic forms of social stigma that dissuade black people from opening up about their suffering. Here’s Lindsey again:

“That ethic about what it means to be strong and courageous is particularly pronounced because of trying to combat those forces like discrimination or racism and it just adds to the burden of sort of what it means to survive.”

This brand of self-suppression isn’t unique to the black community, although its effects when coupled with any of the many other common variables are emblematic of the state of black suffering. Factor in a systemic lack of trust in outside treatment and you’re looking at a culture of bottled-up stress and trauma. This is why Lindsey advocates for “culturally competent care,” because patients are turned off when they perceive inauthenticity in their care providers.


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