May is Mental Health Month. Since its creation in 1949 by the National Association for Mental Health, now known as Mental Health America (MHA), the month of May has been designated to raise acute awareness to better educate the public about mental health and wellness concerns in America.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as “a state of psychological, behavioral, and emotional well-being in which an individual realizes his or her abilities to cope with the normal stresses of life.”
While WHO’s definition seems ideal, the “state of psychological, behavioral, and emotional well-being” in the Black communities of America is not easily defined. Simply put, in today’s atmosphere of heightened hatred, discrimination, violence, and poverty, all rooted in systemic, blatant, and unadulterated “racism,” the “state of well-being” for far too many Black people is one of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and other mental conditions.
Most mental health experts conclude that there is a direct link between racism in America and the mental health and wellness of Black people. And experiencing prolonged scenarios of racial discrimination and injustices can take a heavy emotional toll and trigger chronic stress, depression, racial trauma, which could lead to physical illnesses.
“There are many stressors that impact Black Americans on a daily basis, one of the most deleterious being that of racism,” said native Detroiter, Dr. Riana Anderson, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “Racism, both for Black adults and youth, impacts virtually every element of mental and physical health.”
Anderson believes that various acts of racial discrimination, whether separate or part of a larger systemic pattern in America, are linked to Black people feeling that they are not safe in their communities and elsewhere.
“The idea that I may not be here tomorrow is a pervasive fear for Black residents,” Anderson said. “whether it be at the hands of police officers, racist groups, the COVID-19 pandemic, or shorter life expectancies in at-risk and underserved Black communities.”
Such mental dispositions of Black people are not new because racism in America is not new. Since 1619, when Black enslaved men, women, and children were first taken out of Africa and transported to the New Land, Blacks in this country have been marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised more than any other race of people. As a result, the people who are darker than blue have unique concerns, trauma, stress, obstacles, and challenges due to their historical experiences, cultural differences, and social disparities caused by being Black in America.
Perhaps one of the most pervasive experiences that has constantly placed an immense spotlight on racism in America is police brutality, defined as the violent, excessive, and unwarranted use of force against a human being, a violation of one’s civil rights. There have been thousands and thousands of cases of police brutality against African Americans just over the last decade. The list is too long to compile. However, the shortlist includes Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
Many mental wellness experts agree that when Black people continually see the horrifying images of police brutality unfold – in person or on televised news shows or social media platforms, internalizing the injuries and violent deaths can lead to severe mental health issues, increasing the risk for depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, and the gravitation to substance abuse.
Last year, the horrific murder of George Floyd helped deepen the mental anguish that Black people, especially Black men in America, know so well. There for the entire world to see was an unarmed Black man, in handcuffs, lying face down in the street with a White police officers’ knee planted on his neck for more than nine minutes. While Floyd’s murder appeared to be just another unarmed Black man killed, and the story would go away to wait for the next episode, that wasn’t the case. The ex-police officer that killed Floyd was found guilty of all three charges, which included second-degree murder.
In the eyes, hearts, and souls of people around the nation and beyond, Floyd’s death and trial ushered in the birth of a sweeping advocacy of movements clamoring for and demanding real change against police brutality not seen in this country…maybe ever.
So when will police brutality end and the physical and mental safeness of Black people be upheld? Many hope that H.R. 7120, also known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, will be the “quantum leap for national change.” The Bill addresses sweeping policies and issues surrounding policing practices and law enforcement accountability.
“The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act seeks to hold our system of justice accountable at a time when transparency and liability are lacking,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement issued by the organization’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. “We’ve witnessed far too many deaths at the hands of law enforcement with little to no recourse. It is long overdue that we reimagine public safety in our communities and rethink policing…this piece of legislation aims to do just that.”
Johnson, a native Detroiter, added that “Police officers need more training in how to de-escalate situations,” he said. ”And there need to be more financial resources for mental health support, social workers, and programs for young people, many of which have been cut as law enforcement budgets have swelled. Reform in all those areas, including the police, can help society.”
Johnson speaking on the need for mental health support to help stem the titanic tides of racism is essential. There must be clear pathways forward in the core mission of establishing and implementing credible mental health support. And to move forward, there must be the will to overcome the stigma attached to an individual who seeks help for mental issues.
“People of color, particularly African Americans, feel the stigma more keenly,” Bebe Moore Campbell, the late author and founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles Chapter once said. “In a race-conscious society, some don’t want to be perceived as having yet another deficit.”
“Culturally, Black people may also feel like they must both maintain strength and should not air their dirty laundry’ for others to see,” said Anderson. “And certainly, Black community members not only have less access and quality care for mental health provision but given the reasonable distrust of health providers from medical abuse, may utilize services less.”
Anderson points out that there are many resources available to help relieve mental health stressors in the Black community. Some require insurance, but others are free or offered at a low cost. Anderson said social media outlets and virtual mental health platforms are available to help, such as Our Mental Health Minute, Black Mental Wellness, and Black Emotional and Mental Health. In addition, many churches and faith-based organizations offer counseling.
Anderson said the National Alliance on Mental Illness also offers some resources for finding a practitioner.