By Jasmine Seymore, MSW
When I attended college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and completed my internship working with domestic violence victims and survivors, I immediately knew social work was my calling. Although this was good news and appeared to be a better fit for me, when I announced to my friends and family that I decided to become a social worker, the response I received was one of disappointment and in some cases, disgust. One family member asked why didn’t I stick with “nursing,” and another family member told me, “You aren’t going to make any real money.” It was an absolute struggle for me to hear such things from the people closest to me which was also a group of individuals whom I knew to be compassionate and supportive of others. Not only did I start to second guess that maybe I made the wrong decision, I considered going to the university’s office of Social Work and actually talking to the Social Work Professors about the comments I received. This is when I realized the depth of mental health stigma in the African American community.
As my experience progressed in the social work profession, I noticed many of the individuals who responded the most negatively to my career choice were the individuals I was dedicating my life to helping- African Americans who silently live with mental illness in fear of being judged. The stigma of mental health isn’t anything new to the African American community, but it continues to affect African Americans daily due to barriers surrounding the need for mental health. Many African Americans refrain from seeking out mental health services due to often feeling marginalized, the lack of sensitivity by health care professionals, reliance on family, the community and spiritual support instead of medical or psychiatric treatment.
We as a community should come together to not only recognize but address these challenges. It is essential that we understand why it is so ingrained in our culture. Historic misconceptions are present and over the years we have learned to ignore mental illness or identify it as something else. Symptoms of mental illness are often normalized or explained away. Terms such as “stress, tired or pressure” can be nuanced descriptions for depression. Mental illness gone undetected and untreated can be passed on from generation to generation. This generational component can lead to underestimating the effects and impact of mental health conditions and beliefs that a psychiatric disorder is a personal weakness.
Numerous factors have created a culture that is fearful and uninformed about mental illness. It is important that as a community, we bring awareness and be mindful to the use of stigmatizing language that surrounds mental health. It is important to educate our friends, family, and colleagues about the unique challenges of mental health within the black community. It is important to become aware of our values, beliefs and attitudes towards the black community to reduce implicit bias and negative assumptions. It is also important to note that mental illness does not discriminate!
Jasmine Seymore, MSW is a recent graduate from UW-Milwaukee. She is also a MESF Scholar who is currently working on becoming a licensed mental health provider.