The Mistake of Ignoring Mental Health in Black Youth, “Praying Away” Illness

“While the black community and the black church have made advances in addressing mental health issues as serious issues that require professional help, the psychology community also has a duty to create a more inclusive therapeutic environment that considers all factors in addressing mental health, including culture.”

As a white woman studying at a four-year university, I have been afforded many privileges that I become more and more aware of with each passing news headline of trans people’s’ rights being infringed upon or African American protesters being taken away in handcuffs during a white supremacist rally. Moreover, as someone looking to start a career in psychology, I’m realizing that mental health diagnosis extends to more than just a checklist of symptoms and that culture and generational trauma is just as important as any evidence from a psychological test. This article is based on a personal narrative written by a person of color and therefore, I do not claim to understand the struggles she talks about; rather, my goal is to bring this topic to light not only as a mental health advocate but also as a decent human being concerned about the welfare of other human beings suffering from the effects of discrimination.  

In her article,“Just Pray About It”‒ Ignoring Mental Health is Killing Black Youth,   “unapologetic” advocate and author Artemis Faye talks about how from an early age, black youth are surrounded by feelings of being “less human” and having to feel like they are taking up too much space. Their innocent childhoods are cut shorter than most kids by being given the talk at an extremely young age ‒ except for black children, the talk isn’t about sex or puberty, but how to behave when a cop pulls you over or when you’re talking in front of people who aren’t of color so that you don’t come off as a threat. This raises an important point about how black children are held to a different standard than white kids. During a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were found to overestimate the age of black children when compared to the white children in the group. This study analyzed the extent to which black kids are dehumanized and how likely they are to be treated differently than their white peers. The study highlights that black boys are held responsible for their actions when white boys at the same age are still benefiting from the belief that children are inherently innocent. Therefore, these efforts to ensure black youths’ safety are necessary for the society we live in; however, they also breed a cycle of traumatized youth in each generation that passes. Taught to suppress weakness, black youth often do not deal with the negative emotions they experience and can’t recognize anxiety and depression for what they truly are. This results in detrimental effects on the mental health of these teens that carry into their adulthood.

In Faye’s narrative account, she talks about being admitted to a treatment facility at 16 years old for an eating disorder that went undiagnosed long enough for her to reach a dangerously low weight. At the center, she realized that she didn’t fit in with the other people at the facility. Faye was the only woman of color who could barely afford the treatment that was saving her life in a room full of upper middle-class women who did not experience the same generational trauma she had and would never be able to understand. Her story raises the important point that if there are fewer people of color seeking treatment in these kinds of programs, it’s not because people of color are less likely to have mental health issues, but because “[they] are more likely to hurt silently.” In fact, considering that poverty correlates with an increased risk of mental illness, the fact that black people have the highest poverty rate at 27.4% shows that there is a great disparity between people of color suffering from mental illness and people of color being able to access treatment.

This lack of seeking treatment is also to due to some misconceptions in the black community. First, there is this belief that mental health issues are ‘white issues’ and if the black community can get through slavery, then any black individual can get through something that is just produced in one’s own mind. This touches on a prevalent stigma of mental health in our society that an issue with mental health is a sign of weakness and for the black community, in a world plagued with hatred and racism, portraying any sign of weakness is not something they feel they can afford. Therefore, most black youths are taught to pray about it rather than go to therapy because faith in God should outweigh faith in a therapist. Some also base this on the belief that God doesn’t give a person more than they can handle, so prayer is the only thing necessary to move on from a mental illness. Because of these ideas sometimes found in the black community, black youth keep mental illness a secret and are not aware of self-help resources until they go away to college where there is often on campus college counseling, for instance.

On the other hand, it is not accurate to say that the black community is simply choosing to neglect the issues of mental health; the full narrative is more complicated than that. For example, there’s the issue of affordability where even though there are some programs that may provide some financial assistance, low-income individuals may not be able to afford expensive therapy while the church is free to attend. Another factor to consider is that members of the black community could be afraid of facing racial bias in the therapist’s office, contributing to their apprehension about reaching out for psychological help when facing mental health issues. There seems to be a disconnect in cultural competency within the psychological community that also contributes to the mental health of black youth being ignored or neglected.

A higher risk of mental illness should never correlate to protocols that silence suffering. “Praying away” chemical imbalances within someone’s brain or allowing people of color to continue to enlist shallow defense mechanisms (like self-deprecating humor and fake confidence) only leads to young black people to become sicker. While the black community and the black church have made advances in addressing mental health issues as serious issues that require professional help, the psychology community also has a duty to create a more inclusive therapeutic environment that considers all factors in addressing mental health, including culture.  It’s the same issue that causes situations like police shootings of unarmed black people ‒ people of color’s voices are not being heard and we, as people of privilege, are literally killing them by not listening.

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