Talking about mental health — and seeking help for it — takes a lot of courage. It’s not easy to talk about your emotions and feelings, especially when mental health isn’t a subject often discussed or acknowledged in your family or community.
While mental health awareness has come a long way, stigma continues to prevent people from talking about and getting help for mental health. This is especially true in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
To overcome stigma in any community, it’s important to first understand why it exists. Here, we’ll share why mental health stigma exists in BIPOC communities. Then, we’ll share tactical ways you can overcome stigma so you can feel more comfortable talking about mental health disparities in your community and seeking the support you need.
There are various reasons why mental health stigma exists. Stigma can be attributed to negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that the public holds towards those with mental illness (public stigma), negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that a culture holds towards those with mental illness (cultural stigma), and internalized negative societal beliefs about mental illness (self-stigma).
Different types of stigmas exist in certain BIPOC communities. For example, in some immigrant and refugee communities, cultural traditions of privacy, proud self-reliance, a preference for non-Western medicine, and uneasiness with American health care leave certain immigrants less likely to seek care on their own. Moreover, many children of immigrants recognize that their parents went through significant trauma, and therefore believe that their mental health needs cannot or should not be validated, as their trauma seems trivial compared to what their parents went through.
In Black communities in the U.S., there is a reluctance to seek both physical and mental health care due to a general distrust of the medical establishment. This is because historically, African Americans have been misdiagnosed at higher rates than white patients, and Black communities have been exploited by the U.S. government and medical community for the purpose of medical advancement. Moreover, seeking mental health care is often viewed as a weakness in Black communities, as it runs counter to the survivalist mentality born from experiencing systemic oppression and chronic racism.
Discussing mental health concerns is considered taboo in many Asian cultures, and as a result Asian Americans tend to dismiss, deny, or neglect their symptoms. Discussing mental health concerns is also considered taboo in Hispanica/Latinx communities, as it is viewed as a private issue that shouldn’t be discussed publicly. Some people in Hispanic communities don’t seek treatment for mental illness out of fear of being labeled as “locos” (crazy) or bringing shame and unwanted attention to their families.
Understanding why mental health stigma exists in your community is key to taking steps to overcome it. You can use this knowledge to start the conversation with your family, friends, and other members in your community about mental health to help raise awareness and start chipping away at stigma.
It’s normal to still feel shame or fear around discussing and seeking mental health, even with a strong understanding of where the stigma comes from in your community. To help overcome these feelings, consider using the following techniques.
Facing a mental health concern is a very real and very challenging issue. It’s okay to not feel like yourself and to want to seek help. You’re not alone. Accepting how you’re feeling and giving these feelings validation is a big part of having self-compassion and overcoming shame.
You can further validate your feelings through research and learning more about mental health. This can include reading others’ stories regarding their own mental health struggles and how they overcame and created meaning from their experiences. This can help mitigate feelings of isolation and help give you confidence that you can overcome your own mental health challenges.
Feeling shame makes it hard to talk about mental health concerns. However, starting a conversation, even if it’s talking about mental health in general, can help bring more awareness and normalcy around the topic. Perhaps it’s talking to a close friend or relative about a mental health story you read online, or about a mental health topic or story circulating the news. The person you talk to may not be comfortable or open to the conversation right away, but the more mental health is discussed, the more informed and comfortable they may become with the topic.
Getting mental health support from others who share your culture, ethnicity, and/or race can help further validate your feelings and help you find the right support for your mental health needs. Consider these BIPOC mental health resources from The Mental Health Coalition, along with the following resources to help you get connected with qualified mental health support:
The BIPOC population faces significant hurdles and racial disparities in mental health. BIPOC communities are more likely than white Americans to have mental health concerns, but they are less likely to seek and receive treatment. This is due to a variety of mental health disparities beyond just stigma, including cultural norms, lack of access, and socioeconomic disparities.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness and hopelessness. Moreover, Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security. And yet, only one in three Black adults with mental illness receive treatment. They’re also less likely to receive guideline-consistent care, less frequently included in research, and more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists).
Asian Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, and other People of Color face similar barriers surrounding racial inequalities in mental health care, including socioeconomic disparities, stigma, provider bias, and inequality of care.
Bringing awareness to the fact that BIPOC communities face different types of barriers to receiving quality mental health treatment is only the first step in the path toward mental health care equity. While there is a lot of work to be done, stigma in particular is a barrier that can be addressed and overcome in any community.
Having a mental health concern is not a weakness, nor is seeking treatment for mental health. Taking care of your mental health should be part of your normal life, like going to see your doctor regularly, brushing your teeth, and changing the oil in your car. If you’re a member of a BIPOC community, the challenges around talking about and seeking mental health care are very prevalent and very real. However, taking steps to overcome feelings of shame surrounding mental health concerns — and seeking help for them — is critical to your health and well-being.
WIth professional help and support from mental health providers who are trained in cultural competency, you can overcome your mental health challenges and help to break down the stigma around mental health in BIPOC communities. Seeking help is the first step.
In addition to the resources noted above, you can always talk to a therapist at SonderMind. SonderMind therapists are trained in cultural competency and we can help you find one who’s the right fit for you. If you’re not quite ready to seek care yet, that’s okay too. SonderMind is here to support you with education and resources on mental health whenever you need it.
Cerully, J., Collins, R., Roth, B., Seelam, R., & Wong, E.(2017, January 13). Racial and ethnic differences in mental illness stigma and discrimination among Californians experiencing mental health challenges. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568160/
Jefferson Center. (n.d.). Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, so why do BIPOC communities have difficulty accessing care? https://www.jcmh.org/mental-illness-doesnt-discriminate-so-why-do-bipoc-communities-have-difficulty-accessing-care/
Martin, E. & Todd, H. (2020, August 29). Children of immigrants and their mental health needs. Think Global Health. https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/children-immigrants-and-their-mental-health-needs
National Alliance on Mental Illness (n.d.). Black/African American. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Black-African-American
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Hispanic/Latinx. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Hispanic-Latinx
Nishi, K. (2012). Mental health among Asian-Americans. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/asian-american/article-mental-health
Tartakovsky, M. (2014, August 9). When you feel shame about your mental illness. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-you-feel-shame-about-your-mental-illness#1
The Mental Health Coalition. (n.d.) BIPOC mental health resources. https://www.thementalhealthcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/BIPOC-Mental-Health-Resources.pdf
United Brain Association. (2021, July 9). Mental health care in BIPOC communities - closing the gap. https://unitedbrainassociation.org/2021/07/09/mental-health-care-in-bipoc-communities-closing-the-gap/
USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. (2019, February 12). Why mental health care is stigmatized in Black communities. https://dworakpeck.usc.edu/news/why-mental-health-care-stigmatized-black-communities