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Breaking the silence on mental illness in the black community

Stigma and shame block mental health treatment in African-American community

By Kathi Baker | Emory Health Now | April 4, 2012

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"The black community's traditional reluctance to discuss mental health and illness comes at much too high a cost," says Dr. Sarah Vinson, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

As Dr. Sarah Vinson rotated through her first year of clinical work as a Child Psychiatry Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory, she quickly became aware that there are some significant roadblocks in getting people in the African American community engaged in treatment for mental health problems.

"Misinformation, an absence of trust in the system, racism and financial circumstances are some of the forces that can create barriers in making appropriate decisions about seeking treatment," says Vinson.

In order to take a step toward resolving the problem, Vinson created an online mental health outreach program targeting the black community. The"website"serves as an anonymous resource for patients and their families, or anyone who is interested in finding out more about mental illness.

This user-friendly online program provides educational materials, offers links to professional organizations, lists mental health professionals and provides descriptions of different types of mental illnesses as they relate specifically to African Americans. The website also includes an interactive forum where people can share experiences.

"The black community's traditional reluctance to discuss mental health and illness comes at much too high a cost," says Vinson.

"People may be fearful of being misjudged by their churches and families, so they don't discuss their problems," she explains. "However, it is the support of family and friends that is largely responsible for a successful course of treatment; particularly when it comes to children and adolescents, or people with severe mental illness. Regrettably, when people access care without reinforcement from their loved ones, they often drop out before they are better.

"Untreated, mental illness can cause strained relationships, social dysfunction, and numerous other problems that can end up in divorce, unemployment, and suicide."

Vinson is the recipient of an American Psychiatric Association/Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Fellowship, which provides funds for programming related to minority mental health.