Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white Americans. Black Americans are more likely to experience serious violent crimes than white Americans, making them more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to be diagnosed with with schizophrenia.
In a 2015 survey of licensed social workers in Minnesota, only two percent identified themselves as black.
This disparity between the mental health struggles of the black community in the United States and the number of black mental health professionals is unquestionably unacceptable. The fault of the issue, however, does not lie with the black community, but rather with the culture that surrounds mental health care.
Minnesota is a micro-example of this widespread problem, with its increasingly diverse population that is not reflected in its mental health professionals. Data in the state shows that only 10 percent of white Americans display symptoms of serious mental health issues, but 70 percent receive mental health treatment.
Several factors may affect the uneven allocation of treatment. Black communities struggle against systemic poverty, lack of insurance, and rampant stigma against mental health issues that may discourage acknowledging them or seeking treatment for them. But these problems can only begin to be addressed when mental health culture makes diversity a priority.
Willie Garrett, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists, said that this shortage has always been a “huge problem.” Communities should, first and foremost, make an effort to encourage black students to pursue mental health fields. Beyond that, though, Garrett encourages cultural competence training, which would involve mental health professionals undergoing training that would allow them to better understand the specific struggles of a diverse clientele, and therefore better service them (Sapong, 2017).
Garrett also believes that white professionals in the field do not quite understand the scope of the problem. “This is what a white therapist brings to therapy, it’s this narrow definition. It’s based on white standards and that’s what considered normal and everything else is abnormal” (Sapong 2017, p.21).
Trauma– historical, generational, institutional and present-day– has been identified as a primary contributor to mental illness in communities of color. For example, psychologist and cultural competency training Alyssa Vang. Vang is a Hmong-American, Hmong being an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, whose history is dominated with “oppression, persecution and genocide” (Sapong 2017, p.25). As a result, Vang takes it upon herself to let the lasting generational trauma of her clients with similar ethnic backgrounds inform the care she provides.
Another example is Juneau Hill, a licensed black clinical social worker. She identifies slavery as the root of the destabilization of the black family. “If you don’t think African-Americans have experienced generational trauma, there’s a problem,” she said. “We’re experiencing trauma right now. Just look around the country. We’re getting murdered” (Sapong 2017, p.31).
Hill added, “If you don’t have training in trauma, I don’t think you should be working with this population, honestly” (Sapong 2017, p.32).
And therein lie the options for Minnesota, and communities across the United States; prioritize diversifying the choices those in crisis have for their mental health care, or provide necessary training to those in the field who cannot relate firsthand to the trauma of their clients.
In Minnesota, some advances are being made in this front. A program has been introduced that “exposes diverse students to mental health careers, and expanded college loan forgiveness for counselors who open practices in designated high need areas” (Sapong 2017, p.45). The state Legislature also recently approved a recommendation to drop the requirement for peer specialists to have a high school diploma, to make the position accessible to immigrants and refugees.
The recommendation to make cultural competence a requirement for all licensure and certification in the field, however, did not get approved, and certain statistics may indicate why. In a survey conducted in 2015, 72 percent of “diverse counselors” identified cultural competence as the biggest shortcoming of the state’s workforce (Sapong 2017, p.48). Only 38 percent of white counselors agreed.
There are, though, specific reasons to look to that show the importance of diverse selection or, at the very least, cultural competence. “Often African-Americans present verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are perceived in a negative way by white middle class culture,” said Willie Garrett (Sapong 2017, p.61). For instance, blacks are twice as likely to look away when listening, as well as twice as likely to pause while speaking. Without cultural competence training, white therapists may not understand these and other intricacies of black culture, and may link them to certain problems or behaviors that are not actually present.
This makes the need for cultural competence training glaringly clear. Therapists of all races must be trained across ethnic backgrounds so they are able to provide the best care possible for all clients– especially until Minnesota, and the entirety of the United States, has better encouraged minority communities to pursue mental health care field.
For more on this topic please read, “Minnesota struggles to catch up as minority mental health needs grow.”
Black & African American Communities and Mental Health. (2017, April 03). Retrieved August 04, 2017, from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/african-american-mental-health
Sapong, E. (2017, August 03). Minnesota struggles to catch up as minority mental health needs grow. Retrieved August 04, 2017, from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/08/03/mn-slow-to-respond-as-minority-mental-health-needs-grow