People with mental illnesses have always been victim to discrimination. However, some races and ethnicities have a deeper rooted stigma surrounding mental healthcare.
In 2020, more than 2.6 million Americans completed a mental health screening through the Mental Health America organization. Though only half the participants reported their race during the screening, about half that did identified as white.
Statistics show that mental illness does not discriminate by age, gender, or race, so why are Black, Indigenous, and people of color seeking mental health services at sharply lower rates than their white neighbors?
The History of Scientific Racism
The United States has an ugly history with racism, and the mental health industry is no exception. Also known as biological racism, scientific racism is the pseudoscientific belief that there is evidence to justify racism.
As far back as the Atlantic Slave Trade, psychological terminology was used to justify the enslavement of Black men. They were often described as “uniquely fitted for bondage” with a “primitive psychological organization” to justify the horrific treatment of Africans.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry,” wrote at length about his theory that Black people suffered from a form of leprosy. His proposed cure was to change the skin from “black to a natural white flesh color.”
American doctor Samuel Cartwright coined the term drapetomania in 1851, and it was still listed in the Practical Medical Dictionary in 1914. The term was used for a now-debunked mental illness that allegedly caused Black enslaved men and women to flee captivity.
The cause of the racially motivated “diagnosis” was simple — slave owners who “made themselves too familiar with the slaves, treating them as equals.” The only prescribed treatment for this fake illness was physical abuse, from whipping to removal of the big toe to discourage running at all.
How Does Race and Ethnicity Affect Mental Health?
Racial disparities throughout the mental health system are documented across the years. Compared to white people, BIPOC people are less likely to have access to mental health services or seek mental health services at all. And unfortunately, when they do, they can be faced with hurdles, microaggressions, and incorrect diagnoses.
Statistically, Black men are diagnosed four times more often with schizophrenia than white men of the same age ranges. This change was especially seen beginning in the 1960s, after the Civil Rights movement.
In a similar vein, they are also diagnosed with PTSD and other mood disorders far less likely than white men.
Representation and cultural understanding is important in a therapeutic environment. However, more than 86% of American psychologists are white, and less than 4% of the American Psychological Association members identify as African American, 5% identify as Asian, and 5% are Latinx.
The stigma surrounding mental health is pervasive in almost every culture. However, some minority communities have a greater stigma around seeking mental health treatment and how to treat those with mental illnesses. Many seeking therapy are looking for a counselor within a similar age range, gender, race, and socioeconomic background as themselves.
“In Hispanic cultures, in black cultures, you’re expected to tough it out,” Michelle Álvarez, a North Carolina therapist and woman of color, told NPR. “Therapy is for crazy people. Why would you go and air your dirty laundry to a stranger? I think some people might see it as a luxury for white people.”
A California well-being study in 2017 showed that of all ethnicities, Asian-Americans reported the highest levels of self-stigma and were less hopeful than White Californians that those with mental health diagnoses could be contributing members of society.
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