Shame and Blame with African-Americans and Mental Health: Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Recently, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin kicked off a national campaign to tackle mental health in the African-American community. Benjamin explained why a focus on African-Americans is needed: “Mental health problems are particularly widespread in the African-American community. In 2004, nearly 12 percent of African Americans ages 18-25 reported serious psychological distress in the past year. Overall, only one-third of Americans with a mental illness or a mental health problem receive care and the percentage of African Americans receiving services (nearly 7 percent) is half that of non-Hispanic whites.”

Programs focusing on addressing underrepresentation of minority groups in mental health care tend to focus on outreach to and education of the underrepresented group (while this post focuses on historical and structural barriers to African-American participation in the mental health system, these larger concepts are likely applicable to other racial and cultural minorities throughout the world.). The theory seems to be that if individuals knew that they might be experiencing mental health systems and understood how the mental health system could treat and benefit them, they’d start accessing it in droves. This kind of outreach and education is clearly an important part of increasing minority representation in mental health care, but the exclusive focus implies that the primary barriers are the attitudes of individuals who would change their minds if they just had more information. This ignores a lot of problems and lets a lot of bad actors off the hook for institutional barriers and exclusions. In the particular instance of African-American engagement in the mental health system, it is these long-standing oppressions and exclusions which are perhaps most to blame.

A primary issue is that African-Americans are more likely to be subject to a number of forces of oppression and discrimination which can increase trauma and vulnerability to mental health disorders. “Owing to a long history of oppression and the cumulative impact of economic hardship, African Americans are significantly overrepresented in the most vulnerable segments of the population. More African Americans than whites or members of other racial and ethnic minority groups are homeless, incarcerated, or are children in foster care or otherwise supervised by the child welfare system. Proportionally, 3.5 times as many African Americans as white Americans are homeless. African Americans are especially likely to be exposed to violence-related trauma, as were the large number of African American soldiers assigned to war zones in Vietnam. Exposure to trauma leads to increased vulnerability to mental disorders.”

To me, that does not suggest that the primary solution is increasing African-American representation in mental health treatment – it suggests that a primary solution would be to address the structural inequalities that are making African-Americans “significantly overrepresented in the most vulnerable segments of the population.” Maybe a program that focuses on homelessness in the African-American population. Maybe addressing the sentencing disparities for crimes involving cocaine and crack cocaine, and how that contributes to disproportionate and longer incarceration of African-Americans. Or how felony disenfranchisement prevents a staggering number of African-Americans (13% of black adult males!) from participating in our democratic political system. Without addressing these ongoing problems, a disproportionate number of African-Americans will continue to experience trauma and increased vulnerability to mental disorders.

A second and key issue is the long history of how the psychiatric profession has treated African-Americans in the United States. Diagnoses and treatments for African-Americans have long been rooted in the structural racism of slavery, with early diagnoses of “Negritude” and “Drapetomia” for slaves who fled their masters and recommended treatment of whipping as therapeutic intervention. In 1895, a Georgia psychiatrist popularized the idea that “structured lives led by slaves served as protective factors against insanity” and that slavery protected African-Americans from freedom that would literally make them insane. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were separate “colored” institutions for African-Americans, who received little if any treatment services and were subject to horrific tortures and sexual assaults.

A glance at the current mental health system makes it clear those historical problems have not been eradicated. African-Americans are much more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than with affective (mood) disorders, even when displaying the exact symptoms of a white patient diagnosed with affective disorder. This is true even when the diagnosing clinicians included African-Americans well trained about the bias towards schizophrenia diagnoses. Studies suggest this is because clinicians apply entirely separate decision models when diagnosing African-American patients, likely drawing on stereotypes of paranoia and violence that aren’t actually associated either with African-Americans or people with schizophrenia.

There are also significant knowledge gaps in how psychoactive medications affect African-Americans. There is almost no research on ensuring adequate racial representation in psychopharmalogical research, nor on how to ensure that participating patients from various cultural and racial groups give informed consent. This lack of knowledge is affecting the effectiveness of treatment, as existing research shows that “a greater percentage of African Americans than whites metabolize some antidepressants and antipsychotic medications slowly and might be more sensitive than whites,” and can lead to faster responses and more severe side effects when African-Americans are treated with doses commonly used for whites. Despite this, clinicians in psychiatric emergency services commonly administer “both more and higher doses of oral and injectable antipsychotic medications to African Americans than to whites.”

To me, all of this suggests that the psychiatric profession hasn’t really figured out how to provide psychiatric treatment and care of the African-American population with the African-American individual’s best interests in mind. History speaks to using psychiatry to control, torture, sedate, and oppress African-Americans, even creating fictionalized diagnoses to help support the structures of slavery. Add to all of this the multiple barriers preventing access to mental health care even for those who enthusiastically wish to access it – lack of parity for mental health care, lack of health care coverage at all, societal sigma around mental health – and instead of wondering why there’s underrepresentation of African-Americans in the mental health system, I start wondering why there’s as many as there are.

Clearly, a solution focused only on outreach and education to individual African-Americans is doomed to be unsuccessful, because it overlooks the underlying structural issues making African-Americans particularly vulnerable to mental health problems and the historical reality of their exploitation by the mental health system. Even more troubling, though, is that when the access problem is framed as an issue of education to an individual, it allows the blame to be placed squarely on that individual – even if these other, more serious, structural barriers are ignored. That kind of blame is just another addition to the complex system of forces making African-Americans more vulnerable to mental disorders to begin with.


  1. What you write is true, but the surgeon general has little power over most of it. The disparities of diagnosis, though– she could address that along with the lack-of-access issue.

    Also the Fair Sentencing Act (to eliminate the crack vs. powdered cocaine sentencing disparity) is still floating around Congress as far as I know. Maybe something will happen with it after the health care summit? Americans who support this bill should notify their representatives and senators that they support it.

  2. @Rebecca – i agree that homelessness and fair sentencing are outside the realm of the surgeon general, but the diagnosis disparities and acknowledging and addressing the deeper historical issues at play are very much within her ability. i also think in general, justifying outreach campaigns with information about lack of access tends to significantly oversimplify situations by implying that the fault for the lack of engagement lies within the underrepresented community, rather than any problems with the mental health system itself. publicizing a campaign like this encourages the public to think of the issue that way – something that incorporated the same outreach plans but framed them as necessary to compensate for the historical oppression of African-Americans through the mental health system would have been entirely within her power and conveyed a much different (and more nuanced) message.

  3. also – maybe that means the surgeon general shouldn’t be wholly responsible for addressing this issue?

  4. Definitely the Surgeon General shouldn’t be alone in addressing the issue. As you say it’s more than just an outreach problem. The systematic incarceration of black and other non-white people in the US (with law and order and the war on drugs providing deniability, though the people those dogwhistles are meant for hear them fine) has been enormously destructive on individuals and families and communities. Black people who are mentally ill tend to end up interacting with the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system thanks to racism intersecting with ableism — black people are violent and dangerous and crazy people are violent and dangerous so a crazy black person HOLY SHIT — which only makes things worse.

    Addressing the crack/powder cocaine disparity is not enough. Prohibition needs to end, the people incarcerated under drugs laws need to be released and reparations paid so those wounds can have a chance to start to heal. (Idealism, what?)

    And as you say, the mental health professions need to acknowledge their part in this alienation and take steps to remediate it.
    .-= kaninchenzero┬┤s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  5. Excellent, excellent piece. This is spot on.

  6. This is really amazing. Thank you.

  7. You put so much thought and detail into these posts. They are informative on a practical level while also making a persuasive moral argument as to our responsibility to our fellow people. Thank you for the time and care you put in to this.

  8. This post is fantastic and I plan to link people to it, because it really gets to the heart of a lot of problems in a very concise and readable way.

  9. Great post. In this current recession unemployment affects communities unequally, with Black people, especially young men, having fewer job opportunities. Involuntary joblessness and no income, added to the lack of access to health insurance is hurting a lot of people. I remember the CETA program in the 1970’s that was intended to give young people entrance to the job market. We urgently need an employment problem now.

  10. Thank you for this post. I think I was shielded from a lot of the these issues by a kind of white privilege by proxy from my parents, but as I’ve aged, I’ve lost that “benefit”.