May 22, 2015
Jazelle Hunt, NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA) – The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there are more than 40 million Americans currently dealing with mental illnesses, not including issues related drug and alcohol use.
But mental health treatment goes far beyond diagnoses and prescriptions.
“You don’t have to be what we know as mentally ill. You don’t have to be schizophrenic or bipolar to seek therapy. You can seek therapy because your dog died, and you just feel sad about it,” says Nikki Davis, a prison psychologist and substance abuse and family therapist in Virginia. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your weakness comes from [when] you don’t seek the help you know you need.”
Davis was about 10 years old the first time she saw a therapist. One of her siblings seemed to be struggling with an emotional disorder, and her parents felt the whole family could use some help.
May is Mental Health Month and for many Black people, the concept of mental health treatment is somewhere between laughable and extravagant. Reasons abound for Black people who dismiss mental health treatment.
“In the Black community we are hesitant to trust medical professionals. We think that mental health or mental illness is a White person’s disease. We have a tendency to want to pray it away,” Davis says. “[In therapy] they get an unbiased opinion. You’re going to get a non-judgmental and unbiased environment that is going to be as honest and forthcoming as it can be without damaging you.”
Therapy or counseling involves talking to an educated and licensed medical professional in a safe, confidential, non-judgmental environment.
Regular counseling sessions take place in a comfortable, private office, and are usually about an hour each week or biweekly – but the client can request a different arrangement.
The first visit is a basic meet-and-greet, plus paperwork. The paperwork asks both standard medical questions, as might be seen in a doctor’s office or hospital, as well as personal life questions, such as “How much sleep do you get each night?” or “Is there any personal or family history of drug use?” The first few conversations will be light, centering on hobbies, work, and key people. Clients can ask questions of the therapist as well, both personal and as relates to counseling.
In the following session or sessions, the conversation will likely be about whatever led the client to begin therapy.
“A lot of times I’m not [the clients’] favorite person. I don’t push and prod for you to make breakthroughs, but I will ask you those questions to make you think. So that’s one thing people don’t like to do, they don’t like to think about their own issues or their own flaws that might be contributing to the negative aspects of their lives,” Davis says. “If I can help someone say, ‘I’m going to break myself out of my own personal hell that I’ve put myself into by talking, then I’m going to do just that.’”
Everything said in counseling is strictly confidential – therapists cannot tell relatives or employers anything without the client’s permission, not even a confirmation that a person is receiving counseling. There are two exceptions to this: if the therapist received a subpoena, or if the client is an immediate danger to him/herself or others.
While the need for therapy doesn’t always mean a mental illness is present, a therapist may sense something after several sessions. If this happens, they may suggest an assessment, which ranges from questionnaires to medical tests depending on the issue. If an undiagnosed mental condition is found, the client and therapist discuss treatment options together, as would happen in any doctor’s office.
Sometimes a counselor can be a bad match for a client. For example, if a counselor doesn’t have experience with the client’s concerns (such as race, sexual behaviors, substance abuse), the counselor may cause emotional harm or discomfort out of ignorance.
A person can end therapy and/or switch therapists at any time, even after just one session – without advance notice and with no additional explanation beyond notifying the therapist of the desire to terminate.
“There are plenty of therapists that have never gone to therapy, so they don’t understand what their clients are feeling – that I have to walk into this office, I don’t know you from a can of paint, and I have to divulge things about myself and expose my own personal vulnerabilities,” says Davis, whose master’s degree program required students to receive counseling. In her adulthood, she has been treated for depression and an eating disorder. “I can tell you that it was amazing for me, because it helped me figure out more things about myself.”
Terrie Williams, author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, says that in the Black community, mental health awareness is slowly winning the fight against stigma.
“I believe, sadly, that there is still stigma with mental illness,” said Williams, who publicly disclosed her own challenge with depression. “At the same time, there has been considerable growth, greater awareness, greater space for people to share what it is that they’re dealing with. It’s a much more comfortable conversation among us than it had been in recent years.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black people are 20 percent more likely to report “serious psychological distress” than Whites or Latinos. Black notables such as Metta World Peace (née Ron Artest), Halle Berry, and writers Mychal Denzel Smith and Bassey Ikpi routinely highlight and contribute to mental health awareness in the mainstream conversation. Ebony, Essence, Jet and Uptown magazines have all featured several pieces on mental health over the past few years.
“So much of what happens in our everyday lives has to do with unresolved trauma. And we see it every single day in our streets,” Williams says. “There’s so much post-traumatic stress disorder in our community. You see somebody shot and killed right in front of you, and then you get up and go to work or school the next day like you didn’t just see that.”
Williams, who is also an award-winning publicist, mental health advocate and educator, says that there are many signs a person should pay attention to in themselves that may signal unresolved emotional pain. A few include:
- Being consistently busy with no time given to oneself or self-care;
- Rarely talking about hurts or disappointments;
- Excessive eating, drinking, shopping (outside of one’s means), or other overindulgence;
- Consistent low energy or excessive sleeping;
- Excessive gambling and other risk-taking.
The most common barriers to getting care, outside of the stigma, are lack of insurance or a way to afford the care; inadequate health care plans that do not cover counseling; and a lack of professionals in the area.
People in these situations can call the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 24/7 treatment referral line (1-800-662-HELP, or, 1-800-662-4357). The Department of Health and Human Services has Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) health centers around the country in both rural and urban areas where care is based on income; the nearest center can be found at www.findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov, or by calling 877-464-4772 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.
For help with suicidal thoughts or attempts, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-TALK, or, 800-272-8255) is available at all times.
Davis also points out that many employers have employee assistance programs that offer temporary mental health provisions at no cost. Additionally, all hospitals/emergency rooms have mental health professionals on staff at all times. Therapists are also receiving new guidelines on counseling clients remotely, through video chat apps.
But simply deciding to seek therapy can be a higher hurdle than getting access.
“Run to a therapist! Because everybody that you know is walking that fine line…there is not anybody on this planet who is not dealing with something,” Williams says. “Everybody wears a mask…we pretend that we’re fine when, really we’re just dying on the inside. When you can’t get at the person who harmed you, you will take it out on somebody else.”
Jazelle Hunt is a Washington correspondent for the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.