The headline was stretched across the top of The Washington Post last week: Therapists say African Americans are increasingly seeking help for mental illness.
While no major studies have documented it by the numbers, therapists told the newspaper that they increasingly had begun to see more black patients in their practices.
“I’ve seen an increasing number of African Americans who feel increasingly less stigmatized about coming in and seeking therapy and who also recognize the healing power of therapy,” said Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist in private practice and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, told The Post.
Gardere said that in the past 10 years he had seen an increase of 20 to 25 percent in the number of black Americans seeking help.
It has been a long time coming.
“People kind of expect, ‘Gee, you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get yourself together, there’s nothing wrong with you,” said Annelle Primm, deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association and director of its office of minority and national affairs told The Washington Post in the story, which ran last week.
“We were always taught: ‘Don’t put your business in the street. Don’t put your family’s issues out in front of strangers.”
With that kind of pressure from family and, often, exhortations from the church that counseling with the pastor and greater spiritual devotion was all that was needed, many African Americans have struggled with depression and other mental illnesses that could have been managed with clinical therapy and monitored medication.
Major light was shed on the subject by the late Bebe Moore Campbell.
Campbell, an accomplished author and advocate, received NAMI’s 2003 Outstanding Media Award for Literature for the book “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,” written especially for children, about a young girl who learns how to cope with her mother’s bipolar illness.
In 2005, her novel “72-Hour Hold” focused on an adult daughter and a family’s experience with the onset of mental illness. It helped educate Americans that the struggle often is not just with the illness, but with the healthcare system as well.
Campbell advocated for mental health education and support among individuals with mental illness and their families of diverse communities. She also co-founded the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles.
Following her death from brain cancer in November 2006, NAMI National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a group of friends got together and began to work on making Campbell’s wish to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and to provide greater education to the broader community.
The group worked with several members of Congress and in May 2008, the House of Representatives passed a bill declaring July “Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.”
Dr. Primm has made a substantial contribution to getting rid of the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues.
A nationally recognized expert on cultural psychiatry and co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders, Primm has lectured and written widely on these topics, including two books, “Black and Blue: Depression in the African American Community” and “Gray and Blue: Depression in Older Adults.”
Primm has also organized collaborations of health care practitioners and community health advocates to eliminate disparities in health, mental health, and substance use disorder care and she is a co-founder of All Healers Mental Health Alliance, a multidisciplinary organization, which provides culturally competent responses to the mental health needs of underserved communities affected by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
“Many African Americans have gone without needed care,” Primm told The Post, “and when they have sought care it has been at the crisis stage, which is not optimal.”