July was BIPOC Mental Health Month, bringing awareness to the unique struggles facing Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color (BIPOC), resulting from discrimination and inequality throughout America’s colonialist history. Alongside many socioeconomic disparities affecting minority communities, mental illness and mental health are often difficult to discuss openly, particularly in the Black community.
At Bennett, we seek to foster an environment where open dialogue discussing mental health issues affecting Black people can be addressed in a healing and transformative manner. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black community creates a barrier to generating these very discussions.
“Mental health within the BIPOC community is just beginning to be taken seriously, and the slow response comes with a lot of sacrifices attached to it,” said Ja’nylah Johnson, President of the student organization Built To Last. “For some, this means not going to school so they can take care of their mental health, or not talking to certain family members because of traumatic events they experienced growing up for others. People don’t realize that breaking generational trauma is not something you do alone, but together.”
Can Trauma Be Inherited?
Inherited trauma is a growing theory that explains how negative experiences of past generations can trickle down and influence the present generation through DNA. While the notion that behaviors, perspectives, and fears of long-dead relatives could have an impact on today’s population might seem far-fetched, there is a growing science that supports this is, in fact, the case.
Epigenetics studies how specific structures of DNA found in offspring can be altered by trauma experienced by the parents — or even by the experiences of ancestors from centuries ago. There is also growing scientific evidence that generational trauma can have a profound impact on the lives of the BIPOC community, after experiencing centuries of unaddressed trauma.
This means the Black population in America is essentially living with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Dr. Joy DeGruy. Decades of oppression, starting with slavery, leading to even more decades of discrimination and social injustices — many of which persist today — result in feelings of fear and mistrust. We are not only battling the inequality that we as a society face today, but the inequalities that our ancestors faced centuries ago.
The Growing Mental Illness Bias in the Black Community
We know that mental health affects the Black community in unique ways, often making it challenging for individuals to discuss the issues they are facing and seek the treatment they need. A recent study found that 63% of Black people view a perceived mental health condition as a sign of personal weakness. The cultural stigma around mental health results in people bottling up their emotions and refusing to speak freely, even to friends or family, fearful of how they will be perceived.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness also conducted a surveyed to determine their level of comfort when it comes to discussing mental health-related issues, which revealed another troubling disparity. While 67 percent of people who identified as White reported feeling open to discussing their mental health issues with close friends and family, only 12.5 percent of those who identified as Black felt the same way. This disparity could be explained by numerous factors, such as a racial wealth gap, health provider bias, inequality of care, the list goes on.
The Tuskegee experiments are perhaps the most well-known case of medical malpractice that caused large-scale pain, suffering, and death to the Black community, where 600 African American men were enlisted to take part in a scientific study around untreated syphilis, but were unaware they were not receiving treatment at all. This is a quintessential example of why so many members of the Black community continue to distrust the medical industry to this day.
Without a doubt, the Black community has historically been victim to — and continues to be victim to — prejudices and discrimination by the U.S. healthcare system, and is no doubt a contributing factor that results in so few Black people seeking the mental health treatments they so desperately need. The most recent data gathered in 2019 shows that only one in three members of the Black community actually receive the care they need.
At the same time, there may also be a financial barrier to seeking professional treatment. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Service cost or lack of insurance coverage was the most frequently cited reason for not using mental health services across all racial/ethnic groups.” In 2020, over 10% of Black adults in the United States were living without health insurance.
Mental Health Resources Available
While we know biases and opinions are slowly shifting in this area for the Black community, we are grateful for a number of excellent resources that available to those who are seeking help, education, and/or treatment for mental illness.
The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults, giving them the skills and support they need to thrive today and tomorrow. Their excellent resources center will help you learn how to manage, cope, and support yourself and people in your life.
The Steve Fund is a leading organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color. They promote programs and strategies that build understanding and assistance for mental and emotional health, so check out their list of free resources.
Built To Last is a student-led mentorship group located here on Bennett College run by Ja’nylah Johnson, providing a brave space for growth, healing, and discomfort while unifying surrounding community that continues to uplift the women here today.
Betterhelp.com is one of the largest online therapy services in the world and offers a vastly discounted rate compared to traditional therapy practices. Users can expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $90 per week, compared to upwards of $200 per session from other practices.
Talkspace.com provides an expedited process for matching you with a care provider. Simply complete a brief online assessment, and you’ll be matched with a provider within 48 hours. After that, you can easily schedule a virtual session.
As many know, the suicide hotline launched last week. Functioning similarly to 9-1-1, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can now be reached simply by dialing 9-8-8 to increase accessibility and awareness so we can help people sooner and quicker.
The lack of proper mental health care leads to increased cases of depression and, in severe cases, suicide. We want to do everything possible to eliminate the belief that mental illness is a weakness. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that almost one in five U.S. adults — or almost 52.9 million people — suffer from mental illness. Seeking mental health treatment is completely normal and not something anyone should feel ashamed about.
Aside from these online resources, your local healthcare provider also likely offers sessions by Zoom or phone call. After the pandemic, most providers adapted to a more accessible approach to treating clients and have continued these options even after social distancing restrictions have eased.
By addressing the mental health issues plaguing our current generation, we can put a stop to further generational trauma being passed down through the BIPOC community. The key is to start talking. Start the conversation, whether that be with a parent, relative, friend, member of your community, counselor, or licensed mental health professional.