One of the pillars of Black Wednesdays is to develop and share best practices for maintaining mental and physical health in face of racial violence and police brutality.
July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Black Wednesdays connected with mental health advocate Rwenshaun Miller to discuss breaking the stigma around mental illness in the black community. Since being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder over ten years ago, Rwenshaun dedicated his life’s work to mental health awareness. Rwenshaun is the founder of Eustress, Inc., an organization created to raise awareness on the importance of mental health in underserved communities, allowing individuals to identify and overcome challenges to achieve a healthy and productive lifestyle. He also works with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team – a program that brings together law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency departments, and individuals with mental illness and their families to improve responses to people in crisis.Mental illness does not discriminate. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. The usual mental health ailments among black Americans are anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide (most common among young black men), and post-traumatic stress disorder, because blacks are more inclined to be victims of violence.
The state of mental health in the black community is unquestionably linked to trauma caused by slavery, Jim Crow, The War on Drugs, mass incarceration and all the other systems that have attempted to devalue and dehumanize black people. Yet, black folks don’t want to talk about it because of a stigma fueled by miseducation, cultural barriers, socio-economic obstacles, and inaccessibility to healthcare.
As the saying goes, “people fear what they don’t understand.” Without knowledge of the causes and signs of mental illness, it’s easy to discount the impact it has on friends and loved ones. Contrary to popular belief, mental illness cannot be prayed away. Furthermore, calling someone crazy isn’t going to change their behavior. In fact, individuals experiencing mental illness often dismiss their symptoms or feelings for fear of being labeled. Initiating the conversation is the first step to breaking the stigma. In his role as a therapist, Rwenshaun helps patients verbalize their mental health issues and develop the appropriate coping skills so they can learn to manage their illness. He also spends time training community members to identify mental health issues in others. Knowing how to help someone is just as important as recognizing the issue.
Talking about mental health allows people to advocate for changes in the healthcare system, and eventually will help reverse the stigma. One of the most important changes needed is culturally competent care. Over the course of history, black people have been experimented on, misdiagnosed, and in some cases, denied medical treatment altogether. The lack of trust that exists between the medical community and the black community is one of the reasons why mental illness often goes untreated. Cultural competence – the ability of a medical provider to effectively deliver health care services that meet the socio-cultural values and linguistic needs of a patient – is paramount to rebuilding trust. Rwenshaun is one the few black men in the mental health field. He recognizes the need for more black male (and female) therapists, counselors, and mental health providers. “No one wants to be judged. Black people need to know that it is okay to express their feelings in a safe and open environment. Sometimes you want to see yourself,” he says.
Rwenshaun believes that “advancing the community starts by addressing issues and being present within your own community.” He’s right. Shining a light on mental health awareness is a collaborative effort. We need to start talking about why mental health matters.
If black lives matter to us, mental health should too.
To support National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and mental health awareness year-round, check out the resources below.
- Get involved with Eustress, Inc. – Let’s Talk About It Walk
- Locker Room Talk: Discuss mental health in a safe space
- Share your story
- Take the StigmaFree pledge (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
- Learn the facts