Last week, while celebrating his first NBA championship, Ron Artest made a different kind of history within the Black community. During his post-game interview, the mercurial Los Angeles Lakers star gave a public shout-out to his psychiatrist, whom he credited for helping him successfully navigate the pressures of playing on one of the biggest stages in professional sports. In doing so, as Mychal Denzel Smith brilliantly points out in his recent essay, Artest may have created new space within the public sphere for discussing Black mental health without fear and shame.
The need for reshaping and reinvigorating the public conversation on Black mental health could not come a moment sooner. Despite comprising only 12 percent of the United States population, Black people represent more than 25 percent of the nationâ€™s mental health needs. Over the past 30 years, Black male suicide rates have climbed by more than 200 percent. The depression rate among Black women is 50 percent higher than their white counterparts. Rates of somatization â€” the emergence of physical illness related to mental health â€” occur at a rate of 15 percent among both Blacks and women, as opposed to 9 percent among Whites.
The rising mental health needs among Black people are further compounded by the continued lack of mental health service utilization within the community. While only one-third of all Americans receive care for mental illness, Blacks remain statistically less likely to access proper mental health services than other racial groups.
These numbers suggest that the Black community is in the midst of a full-fledged mental health crisis.
Although it is necessary to shake the cultural stigmas that enable the current crisisâ€” the view that mental health maintenance is anti-Black, anti-masculine, and anti-Christianâ€” such work must be accompanied by an equally engaged effort to address the structural issues that compromise Black mental health. We must begin to spotlight the connection between mental health and other social problems plaguing the Black community. We must understand the collective power of social, cultural and institutional forces in producing, intensifying, and concealing the unique mental health issues confronted by Blacks in the United States.
While all racial and ethnic groups suffer from mental health issues, Blacks are a particularly high-risk population due to their overrepresentation in contexts of social misery. Currently, Blacks account for 40 percent of the countryâ€™s homeless population and nearly 50 percent of the prison population. Black children represent nearly 50 percent of all foster care and adoption cases. Additionally, almost 25 percent of Black youth are exposed to enough violence to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions not only play a direct role in producing and exacerbating mental illnesses, they also create new levels of social marginalization and isolation that further distance vulnerable populations from the services that they need.
Poverty’s affect on mental health
Black mental health is further compromised by economic inequality. While 16 percent of the nation is uninsured, nearly 1 in 4 Blacks live without health insurance, thereby making it difficult to access appropriate mental health services. Blacks with health insurance still have average employer based coverage rates of only 50 percent, compared to 70 percent for their White counterparts. These conditions, combined with the disproportionate absence of living wages within the Black community, make mental health services financially nonviable for many Blacks.
While economically disadvantaged Blacks have access to government-run mental health resources, individuals often have to navigate an extremely bureaucratic and fragmented maze of mental health services. Those who ultimately receive services often do not obtain them through the actual health care system, but through agencies like public schools, welfare offices, and the court systemâ€” none of which have the appropriate resources. As a result, many poor Blacks receive uncoordinated, inconsistent, and ineffective levels of care that ultimately discourage them from utilizing the system.
Many of those in prison suffer from mental illness
In addition to poverty, the impact of the prison industrial complex on the current Black mental health crisis cannot be overstated. Beginning with President Reaganâ€™s aggressive efforts to close mental hospitals and cut off federal aid to community mental health programs in the 1980s, the United States has witnessed a dramatic increase in its homeless population. Concurrent with this neo-liberal assault on the welfare state, neo-conservative lawmakers successfully aimed to criminalize ostensibly anti-social behaviors like panhandling, public drinking, and public urination, all of which are routinely linked to mental illness. (As with with nearly all criminal justice matters in the United States, arrests, convictions, and sentencing for these offenses are disproportionately assigned to poor Blacks and Latinos.) As a result, many individuals who would have previously been under medical supervision for their mental illnesses (including drug addiction) are now chattel within the for-profit prison industry.