May 21 2014
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Communities of Color and Mental Health

David Fakunle, BA, is a first-year doctoral student in the mental health department of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is an alumnus of Project L/EARN, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

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It is always interesting to speak with my relatives when an egregious act of violence occurs, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in December 2012. They are always so disheartened about the mindset of an individual who can perpetrate such a horrible act. When I mentioned that this particular perpetrator, Adam Lanza, suffered from considerable mental disorder including possible undiagnosed schizophrenia, the response was something to the effect of, “Okay, so he was crazy.”

That’s it. He was crazy. I love my family dearly, but it saddens me as to how misinformed some of my relatives are about mental health. Notice that I say “misinformed” as opposed to “ignorant” because to me, being ignorant means you are willingly disregarding the information provided to you. But that is the issue: communities of color, in many cases, are not well-informed, if informed at all, about mental health. That is what drives the negative stereotypes that are highly prevalent within communities of color.

It is important to start off with the elephant in the room: this idea that mental disorder is something only White people deal with and that only White people can “afford” to be crazy. Given the prevailing historical (and current) context in which individuals of color deal with the simultaneous detrimental effects of institutional racism as well as lower socioeconomic status, I completely understand the notion that many simply do not have the time and energy to think about their mental health. If their “mind is right” and they can “think straight,” they keep it moving.

However, that could not be further from the truth. Reports from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2012 showed that the prevalence of serious mental illness among Black adults was comparable to that of White adults—3.4 percent to 4.2 percent—and that Latinos (4.4%) had the second-highest prevalence after American Indians/Alaska Natives. If anything, communities of color need to pay more attention to their mental health given the societal barriers that we are unfortunately born behind, as research has shown that these are legitimate risk factors that contribute to the onset of mental disorders.

Just as importantly, communities of color must realize that many individuals who suffer from mental disorders are incapable of appreciating the gravity of behaviors we may find inappropriate or even appalling. Take it back to Adam Lanza: I wholeheartedly believe that if he did not suffer from the disorders that he had, he would have never committed those murders as he could not understand the totality of his actions. This is not a call to exonerate individuals who commit crimes as a result of mental disorder but rather an urging to understand. I could not imagine living my life and knowing there would be moments when I simply could not stop myself from doing something unsuitable.

Many people do not stop and ponder the burden that must be on someone under those circumstances ... and they are our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones, and our families. We as individuals of color are not immune to mental disorders, and those who do suffer from mental disorder are not “crazy,” nor are they evil. Just like those afflicted with diabetes, hypertension, or cancer, they are sick.

Therefore we must educate ourselves about mental health and what we can do to strengthen and preserve it. We cannot afford to stigmatize those among us who may suffer from mental disorder. If they speak up and can do so without fear of isolation or condemnation by those who supposedly care about them, then they can take steps toward seeking and getting help.

Many in the Black community believe in looking out for each other and sticking together through the struggle. Whether it is racism, discrimination, or lack of opportunity, we pool our resources and energy to combat injustice. I am sure this is true for Latinos, Asians, and all communities of color that have dealt with unfair environments. Well I challenge all communities of color to take that same level of enthusiasm toward combating another injustice: mental disorder. If one of us suffers in the dark, then we all suffer. Let us truly “keep our minds right.”

Tags: Black (incl. African American), Health Care Access, Health Disparities, Latino or Hispanic, Mental and Emotional Well-Being, Project L/EARN, Voices from the Field