The Stigma of Mental Health in the African American Community ~ Leticia Reed, LCSW

The Problem

According to statistics more than 19 million are diagnosed with some form of depressive disorder and the numbers are continuing to grow. African Americans contribute to only 13% of the nation’s population and are over represented in most statistics in regard to most societal ills. Incarceration, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, mortality rates for heart disease and the mortality rates breast cancer for African American women as well as Mental illness, are societal ills that are affecting the community. Due to the stigma surrounding around Mental Health, African Americans are most often left either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, therefore not receiving adequate care needed to treat their presenting problems. As a result, most in this category may oftentimes endure chronic homelessness, substance abuse issues and a cycle of incarceration due to their mental health issues, becoming increasingly worst in some cases and posing a significant safety risk to self and others. Moreover, mental health related issues are masked by physical health issues such as: diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, stoke and obesity from depression related overeating which African Americans continue to be plagued with in very high numbers. However, many African Americans, like the rest of the population, most times, rather treat their physiological issues due to society’s acceptance of physical health versus mental health issues, which we have all continually witnessed the tragic ramification of mass shootings due to unaddressed mental health issues.

This continues to lead to circular and unresolved discussions about gun laws with the subject of mental health being swept under the rug in the end. Lack of attention to any issue will gives birth to growing misconceptions and myths which we have seen.

Historical Background of Current Stigma of Mental Health in African American Community

Issues contributing to the current myths and misconceptions deter many African Americans from seeking mental health treatment include, but at not limited to the following:

A) Distrust towards the medical system due to a historical deception of bureaucracy systems

ie. Tuskegee Experiment

B) Racial biases by medical professionals servicing African Americans

C) Lack of insurance and monetary resources to access and receive optimal care

D) Religious Faith beliefs

E) Fear of being labeled as “crazy” by loved ones.

How Myth are Perpetuated

In my years of practice, I’ve often had clients report that they were attending sessions with me in secrecy due to fearing being ostracized by their loved ones and being labeled as weak for not being able to “suck it up” and deal with their stuff. This has been specifically the tone with African American women, I’ve counseled who often commented on how they were expected to be “STRONG” and the “ROCK” for the family. Interestingly, most also suffered from some type of physical ailments because of the overwhelming pressure and stress this unrealistic expectation causes.

I have also heard about family members, typically from older generations, comment about only needing GOD for restoration and healing. I would often tell them that just as GOD made medical doctors, HE also made therapists. I would go on to say how they wouldn’t give a second thought and delay in going to ER for a broken bone and that having a “broken brain” is even worst as it controls the entire body. Every time I provided this analogy to my clients, I could see the light bulb come on and their perspective on

Mental Health changing and viewed it as the stigma of mental health eradicating one client at a time. Some of the thought processes pervading many African American homes may also have a significant role in strengthening and perpetuating the stigma associated with Mental Health. The “what goes on in this house stays in this house” philosophy is one of those teachings that I too am familiar with. This promotion of secrecy when it comes to affairs is what many children are taught, leading to generations of unaddressed mental health issues. I’m glad I was able to break this cycle for future generations and continue being agent of change I am today.

Current Dilemma

Due to these myths, many African Americans continue to suffer in silence with some senselessly losing their lives via suicide and medical issues or losing their joy and leaving losing their quality of life altogether. Sadly, staggering number of African Americans still rather suffer in silence than seek treatment. Although strides are slowly being made with the help of various social media forums, PSA with celebrities coming forward and discussing their personal struggles with their own mental health issues, there remains much work to be done.

Therapeutic Approach

Consistent service delivery that is authentic, compassionate, empathetic, culturally sensitive and an egalitarian approach to convey partnership, as opposed to a one promoting a hierarchy and the provider as being superior approach in treatment can help to erase the stigma as many have shared their disdain for the latter approach.

Symptoms of Mental Distress

Loved ones of individuals with mental health conditions are usually alerted first about their loved one’s mental condition by observing “strange or odd behavior” early on. Depression like other conditions, are marked by signs/symptoms that one may overlook and/or minimize due to a lack of knowledge on what to look for.

These are some of the signs to look for:

Depressed Mood or irritability

Loss Motivation or Interest in Pleasurable Activities


Talks of Suicide or Homicide

Issues with Work/ School attendance and performance

Interpersonal issues with peers, co-workers, friends, etc..

Legal problems

Substance Abuse

Poor concentration/focus

Increased or decreased sleep

Increased or decreased appetite

Feeling Numb

Psychomotor retardation

Low motivation to complete normal daily tasks

Treatment Options

Talk therapy/counseling

Psychotropic medication

Inpatient treatment (when posing a danger to self/others)

Group therapy


When it appears the individual is posing a threat to self or others, please call 911

The National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Leticia Reed is a practicing Licensed Clinical Social Worker and wellness coach with over a decade of experience working with various populations. Leticia is passionate about helping others and has a specialty in working with women of color heal from their trauma related experiences and guiding them towards becoming their best selves. Leticia recently launched the Queen’s HOPE, HEALING and HUSTLE planner to assist women achieve healing in mind, body and soul while guiding them in achieving their career goals. Leticia also served as Contributing Author in the book entitled: Mental Health Entrepreneur: Gain Freedom and Escape the 9-5 Grind: How to Treat Mental Illness and Monetize Your Expertise.
Leticia graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in Psychology and Minor in Child Development and have experience teaching at the University of Southern California (USC) in the School of Social Work Department where she graduated with her Masters in Social Work Degree. Leticia has been featured in countless articles and featured on radio shows, podcasts, cable television shows and has been invited to serve on numerous professional panels. Leticia continues to serve as a mental health therapist, coach, consultant and conducts clinical trainings and workshops for mental health professionals throughout the world including Tokyo, Japan.

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