Yes, mental illness affects ‘us’

Filed under OPINION

00-georgecurryOn Monday, Sept. 16 the news was shocking: A contract employee who worked at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., later identified as Aaron Alexis, killed 12 innocent people in the facility before he was killed by police.

For many African-Americans, our first thought was: “I hope it wasn’t one of us.”

On Oct. 3, there was another disturbing incident in the nation’s capital: An unarmed woman with her 1-year-old child in the car, drove her vehicle into barriers outside the White House and on Capitol Hill before being shot to death by police.

Again, we thought: “I hope it wasn’t one of us.”

And the next day brought additional bad news from Washington: A man poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire on the National Mall. He died the next day.

Once again: “I hope it wasn’t one of us.”

In each case, it was one of us. Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard gunman, was Black. Miriam Carey, the 34-year old dental hygienist from Stamford, Conn. was an African-American. And the unidentified man who burned himself to death on the Mall was also Black.

Reluctant to discuss
More important than their race, Aaron Alexis, Miriam Carey and possibly the man who set himself on fire suffered from a mental disorder. And that’s something we have been reluctant to discuss. But it’s time for that to change.

In an interview last year on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Dr. William Lawson, professor of psychiatry and chairman of psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine, discussed some of the factors in our refusal to seek help for mental problems.

“Many African-Americans have a lot of negative feelings about or not even aware of mental health services,” he said. “They are not aware of the symptoms of many mental disorders, or they may believe that to be mentally ill is a sign of weakness or a sign of character fault.”

That attitude permeates Black America, regardless of income level.

“In places like Los Angeles and New York, everyone and their pet has a therapist, yet even among the wealthy and elite, many African Americans continue to hold

When Blacks do seek help to get over those emotional hurdles, they tend to do so later, when treatment might not be as effective as it may have been if they had sought help earlier.  In addition to our antiquated attitude toward mental health, medical professionals also share part of the blame.

A fact sheet by the National Alliance on Mental Health notes:
• African-Americans in the United States are less likely to receive accurate diagnoses than their Caucasian counterparts. Schizophrenia, for instance has been shown to be over diagnosed in the African-American population;
• Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African-Americans from accessing care due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding.
• Overall sensitivity to African-American cultural differences, such as differences in medication metabolization rates, unique views of mental illness and propensity towards experiencing certain mental illnesses, can improve African-Americans’ treatment experiences and increase utilization of mental health care services.

Treat mental illness
Dr. Sarah Vinson, who created the website BlackMentalHealthNet.com, said mental illness takes a high toll on African-Americans.

“Untreated, mental illness can cause strained relationships, social dysfunction, and numerous other problems that can end up in divorce, unemployment, and suicide.”

George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.

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