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Black History Month

Black History Month: A Focus on Mental Health

Each year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) establishes a theme for Black History Month.

This year’s Black History Theme is Black Health and Wellness, which celebrates the legacy of Black scholars, medical practitioners, and healers, and emphasizes the importance of caring for one’s physical, emotional, and mental health.

This theme presents the perfect opportunity to highlight the intersection of systemic racism and mental health, as well as the incredible mental health work being done in Black communities.

Racism is a Mental Health Issue

Mental health conditions are largely caused by past trauma. We often think about this trauma in terms of personal experiences or hardships, and we’re right to do so. For many of us, though, those personal traumas are the only ones we have to navigate.

Black people in this country do not have that luxury. In addition to contending with their internal trauma, they’re also subjected to the external trauma that is structural, institutional, and individual racism in their everyday lives.

This racial trauma is formally referred to as race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), which Mental Health America describes as, “…mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.” Racialized trauma can be caused by specific individuals directly or it can be generally experienced within a wider system.

Research shows that experiences of race-based discrimination can have detrimental psychological impacts on individuals and their wider communities. Prolonged incidents of racism can lead to symptoms similar to those experienced with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Currently, PTSD is considered a mental health disorder. RBTS is not.

In this way, racism is a mental health factor that cannot be ignored. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities make up more than 14% of the US population – in order to treat each and every patient comprehensively and precisely, the mental health industry as a whole must become better equipped to address racism and RBTS with compassion, education, and research.

Barriers to Mental Health Care in Black Communities

But it’s not just the treatment approaches and strategies that need to get better. Access to mental health care in BIPOC communities must improve as well. 

There are a variety of barriers that limit Black communities’ access to mental health care. Some are more straightforward, such as the racial disparities that are baked into the healthcare system, and some are more complex, such as cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness/seeking mental health support in Black communities.

Other barriers include:

Mental Health Progress in Black Communities

Though there is clearly still substantial progress that needs to be made, it’s important to acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate the work being done to break these barriers and create pathways to support for Black people struggling with mental health.

Check out some awesome organizations and movements dedicated to creating a better mental health reality for Black communities!