From police brutality to health care gaps, there are countless forms of systemic violence that impact black communities. But there’s one quieter, overlooked threat that’s begun to have a deadly impact on black children: mental health stigma.
The rate of black youth committing suicide has never been higher.
A 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that for the first time, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 had doubled between 1993 and 2013 — while the rate among white children had declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys in particular. These findings were so surprising to researchers that they spent an extra year re-analyzing data just to double check themselves, only to find the same results.
And while white people still have the highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have increasingly grown over the past decade. The most recent census data found that black youth are killing themselves far more frequently than their elders — and suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24.
These sobering numbers reveal how mental health problems have been quietly chipping away at the young black population over the past decade. However, in many black communities, community health experts say mental health remains a deeply stigmatized “white people problem,” or a personal weakness, rather than an illness. And little is being done at the community health level to shift this perception.
Jessmina “Minaa B.” Archbold, a social worker and mental health resource for New York youth living in poverty, is hoping to change that.
In 2014, Archbold began an online story-sharing project for people struggling with addiction, inspired by her own work in the field. After hearing so many stories of stigmatized mental issues in the black community, she helped the project morph into a platform for black girls to talk openly about mental health. The project, called Respect Your Struggle, quickly became a place for black girls and women to work toward unapologetic acceptance of their unique battles with mental health issues.
To Archbold, the biggest challenge in getting her audience to embrace their health challenges is shattering the stigmatized labels that surround it. “People hear ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression,’ they are told medical diagnoses, they see white people on the internet sharing their stories of battling mental health — and they think ‘Oh, that’s not me’,” she said.
So instead of instantly assigning people to a clinical label, Respect Your Struggle shares relateable stories from other black women and offers holistic ways for women to practice self-care — framing it as a strength-building process as opposed to an illness.
This approach is merely a first step in a bigger effort to do more community mental health outreach in black communities, work that Archbold said shouldn’t stop at black girls. In a white-dominated industry, Archbold said it’s vital to also educate professionals on how to relate to black youth battling mental illness.
“People need to be with someone they feel safe around, who have a sense of understanding of the pressures they face,” she said. Ideally, Archbold said, this would be another black person. Many fellow experts in her field agree that increasing the numbers of black doctors and social workers could help black communities feel more comfortable about accepting health care.
Trusting health professions has never come easy for black communities. Haunted by destructive clinical experiments by white doctors — like Alabama’s Tuskgeegee study, in which federal researchers misled black men into participating in a study that tracked their untreated syphilis — and findings of present-day unconscious racism within the medical system, it’s not surprising why.
“There’s a history of medical experts violating black people’s trust. They’re not eager to relive that. Seeking that care is looked down on in black communities,” said Kimya Dennis, a professor of sociology and criminal studies at Salem College, who has studied the factors contributing to suicide among black youth for several years.
“A lot of families rely more on spirituality to heal. Going to a professional would be a betrayal of faith — regardless of your faith base,” she said.
This deep distrust in medical professionals could leave children, who may be dealing with serious mental health, undiagnosed or untreated — leading to long-term neglect. To combat this, Dennis said some organizations should set up mental health screenings in predominantly black churches to approach people in a comfortable space.
If parents do decide to seek professional help for their child, Dennis said many are quickly deterred by the cost in the current health care landscape. The uninsured rate among black Americans is persistently higher than the rate for white Americans. Plus, more than 50 percent of the county’s black population lives in the South, where few states have expanded their Medicaid programs to reach more people living just above the poverty line. For many, lacking insurance could be the deciding factor between getting their child on recommended medication or continuing to ignore a serious mental illness.
Dennis agrees that addressing the heavy stigma associated with mental illness in the black community, especially within families with children, is key to moving forward.
“We must combat the notion that blackness has to be synonymous with pain,” said Dennis. “Some people believe that to be black means to be permanently outraged. We want to be the people who can overcome any trauma. But it’s not that simple.”
Which Archbold has struggled with herself. She openly identifies as a strong black woman. But as someone who quietly battled thoughts of suicide in her teens, she’s hesitant to fully embrace this label.
“For black people, ‘strength’ means being too proud to accept help. It means taking on a heavy load of stress and suffering silently. It’s become an unrealistic stereotype among black girls,” she said. “I found my own strength through facing my weaknesses. Without them I would be powerless.”
She’s seen this struggle in the faces of many black girls raised — like her — in a black community where emotional weaknesses were looked down upon, and believes it’s time to shift the long-ignored stigma. Archbold said this strong pride that black communities have in their ability to endure should actually embolden them to seek care. The strength of her ancestors fighting for equality paved the way for allowing black people to access mental health resources.
“This is 2016. Our ancestors didn’t have the resources we had today, they didn’t have Black Lives Matter, they couldn’t speak out about their health problems,” she said. “We can no longer be blinded by our pride. It’s time we redefine what these terms we want to represent really mean. Then we can see change.”