Contestants of the 2019 Miss USA Pageant congratulate winner Chelsie Kryst.
Image Source: @missusa / Instagram

Cheslie Kryst and the Stigma Around Black Mental Health

Former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, an outspoken advocate for mental health, tragically took her life last month (Yahoo! News). The following day, Rice University publicized a study revealing that Black and Latinx Christians are most likely to seek mental health care not from mental health professionals but from pastors, who report being ill-equipped to provide care (Rice). Black mental health is an ongoing issue thanks to historical and present-day inequities.

Black and African American people have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders because of the historical, economic, social, and political influences they’ve been systemically exposed to for decades (Columbia University). Over 16% of Black people reported having a mental illness within the past year (Mental Health America). That’s over seven million people.

These numbers drastically increased when the video of George Floyd’s death was released. Within a week, 41% of African Americans exhibited at least one symptom of anxiety or depression (Washington Post). However, most Black adults with serious mental illnesses do not receive treatment (SAMHSA).

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Barriers to Black mental health care include a “lack of trust in the medical system due to historical abuses of Black people in the guise of health care, less access to adequate insurance, financial burden, and history with discrimination in the mental health system” (Columbia University). 

In the United States, scientific racism was used to justify slavery and the mistreatment of enslaved people (Counseling Today). During this time, prominent physicians and psychologists “discovered” new mental illnesses that only affected enslaved people, such as “drapetomania,” a mental illness that caused enslaved people to flee captivity, and “dysaesthesia aethiopica,” the proposed cause of laziness and “disrespect for the master’s property” (Counseling Today). Whipping and other forms of physical abuse were recommended as “treatment.”

In the 1960s, “schizophrenia was described as a ‘protest psychosis’ in which Black men developed… ‘delusional anti-whiteness’ after listening to or aligning with activist groups such as Black Power [sic], the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam” (Counseling Today). 

Today, Black and African American adults are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia (Mental Health America), with Black men in particular at a rate four times higher than white men. They’re underdiagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and mood disorders (Counseling Today)

Black and African American adults with mental health illnesses involving psychosis are more likely to be placed in jail or prison (Mental Health America). In 2016, it was reported that the imprisonment rate for Black and African American men was six times higher than that of white men. The imprisonment rate for Black and African American women was nearly double that of white women (Bureau of Justice). Today, “there are more than three times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in hospitals” (Counseling Today).

Historical injustices and the lack of Black mental health care providers raise doubts that therapists or psychologists will be culturally competent (Mental Health America). Sixty percent of psychologists are white, while less than two percent of American Psychological Association members are Black or African American (American Psychological Association). Researchers recognize that a therapist’s lack of cultural responsiveness can significantly impact the level of care and service the Black community receives (Columbia University).

Poor mental health care access is compounded by the fact that there are still 30 million people in America without insurance; half of them are people of color (Brookings Institution).

“There’s a strong relationship between socioeconomic status and health such that people at the lower end, people in poverty tend to have poorer health and tend to have fewer resources … for dealing with the stressors of life.”

Diane R. Brown, Professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and author, for HuffPost

Providers are making a change by practicing cultural responsiveness. Being culturally responsive is when a provider recognizes and understands the role culture plays in their and their patient’s life and uses that understanding to adapt a treatment plan that meets their patient’s needs within their cultural framework (Columbia University).

Although mental health facilities have spent the last four decades increasing cultural awareness and cultural competency training (Counseling Today), there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to diversify the field and ensure Black and African American adults receive access to adequate mental health services. We can start by understanding how someone’s race and ancestral history impact their mental health.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Black people have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders due to white supremacy.

  • Over seven million Black and African American adults deal with a severe mental illness, but only 2% of psychologists are Black.

  • Black and African Americans are less likely to seek psychiatric help but more likely to be placed in jail or prison than people of other races.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or you can contact the Crisis Text Line for emotional crisis support by texting HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

*This piece was originally published 8/14/20. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 2/22/22.

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