Have you ever noticed how easy it is for total strangers to acknowledge that they have migraine headaches, or are being treated for high blood pressure? Contrast that with discussions about mental health issues. Somehow, we all have the idea that talking about mental health is completely off-limits. We are afraid to think about it sometimes, let alone discuss it or seek necessary treatment.
A study done in 2008 (1) questioned African Americans being treated for depression about reasons why we as a group tend to under-use mental health services. The most frequent response was stigma, but shame and denial were also among the top factors listed. That is not a surprise to any of us.
The question is though, how long are we willing to suffer in silence ourselves, or to permit our family members to suffer needlessly? As a psychiatrist, as well as a family member of people who suffer from mental illnesses, I can tell you that refusing to get help when you know that something is not quite right, only prolongs the agony for everyone, and increases the likelihood of a poor outcome, such as suicide or other dangerous behaviors. I also know that as family members, we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to talk about the struggle, because then we are cut off from the amazing support and understanding of countless others who are walking the same walk.
The better we can deal with mental illness as family members, the stronger and healthier we can be for ourselves and for our families. In terms of the basics of mental illnesses, among the most common is depression. This involves a pervasive feeling of sadness for weeks at a time, with associated sleep and weight/appetite changes, feeling constantly tired and even physically ill. At its worst, depression can also lead to thoughts about not wanting to live, or attempts to kill oneself. Although the overall suicide rate among Black Americans is slightly less than half that of the general population in the U.S., our males aged 20 – 24 years have a much higher rate of suicide than the general population. (2) Although more men kill themselves, more females will attempt suicide. Although 90% of suicides are associated with mental illness, one interesting study by Joe (3) found that half of Black adolescents who reported a suicide attempt had never had a psychiatric diagnosis.
I suspect that a big part of this is that many of our young people do not have the benefit of undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, even when those around them suspect that they are troubled. Summarily, if you are reading this article, and recognize yourself or repeatedly think of someone you love as you read it, I would encourage you to get help for yourself or that person. We know that mental illnesses exist among us; the good news is that they can be treated successfully. The health of our minds is just as important as the health of our bodies. It is time for us to take charge of both. If you need help, call 211 for the Switchboard of Miami in Dade County, or First Call for Help in Broward County.
1. Cruz M, Pincus HA, Harman JS, et al. (2008). Barriers to care-seeking for depressed African Americans. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 38(1): 71-80.
2. Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2011). Suicide among racial/ethnic populations in the U.S.: Blacks. Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.
3. Joe, S., Baser, R. S., Neighbors, H. W., Caldwell, C. H., & Jackson, J. S. (2009). 12-month and lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts among Black adolescents in the National Survey of American Life. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(3), 271–282.
Juandalyn Peters, M.D. is a board-certified adult and pediatric psychiatrist in private practice in Hollywood, Florida. She is author of the recently published book “How to Stop a Suicide”.