Navigating mental health, stigma and healthcare | Think Piece

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As a man of color, it is particularly difficult to engage others in mental health discussion.

Like many people of color, I have had several negative encounters with non-Black healthcare professionals. There have been moments when white doctors did not believe I had an ailment, nor much less  bother with a “cure”. They thought I was lying or they simply enjoyed having me in pain. Another example is my mother, whom for many years complained about pain in her back and arms. Her distress was merely dismissed as arthritis. (Un)fortunately, a second opinion conducted by medical doctors in the Dominican Republic revealed that my mother had multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

As a child I had an easier time navigating the healthcare system. When my mother would take me to the doctor’s office, I vividly recall  not communicating much with medical doctors unless they asked where my discomfort was located. As an adult, trusting healthcare professionals has remained an issue for me, especially when it comes to mental health. There are frightening statistics pertinent to the amount of mental health therapists as compared to people of color.

According to a 2015 report by the American Psychological Association, there is a huge discrepancy in the ratio of therapists to patients of color. Figures from the study provide a breakdown of mental health professionals by race: white (83.6 percent), Black/African American (5.3 percent), Latino (5 percent), and other racial/ethnic groups (1.7 percent). The troubling data signifies that there are few professionals with whom I can identify. If I cannot relate with a medical professional, then why would I seek their help? Especially when it is often the case that they appear judgmental of me or critical of  the information provide.

Coupled with my own negative encounters in and outside the profession,  my trust issues are rooted in the racist history behind the maltreatment of people of color in this nation by European-descended immigrants.

One one hand, when a Caucasian person commits a heinous crime in the United States, authorities and the media immediately go out of their way to label the person emotionally disturbed. Two examples are the recent mass shootings in Parkland, Florida and in Santa Fe, Texas. Both were perpetrated by white shooters, Nikolas Cruz and Dimitrios Pagaourtzis, respectively. Most articles sympathized with them (and others of the like). Often, noting the white men as “alleged” shooters, including photos depicting them as nice fellows and details that made them appear “humane.”

On the other hand, when a person of color commits a crime, they are not even entitled to an insanity defense. In the United States when a Caucasian person commits a heinous crime, authorities and the media immediately go out of their way to label the person emotionally disturbed.

One perfect example are the recent mass shootings perpetrated by White shooters Nikolas Cruz in Parkland, Florida and Dimitrios Pagaourtzis in Santa Fe, Texas. Most articles noted them (and others) as “alleged shooter” and often included photos that depicted them as nice fellows, and/or included details of their personal lives that made them appear “humane.” On the other hand, For example, shooters of color such as Omar Mateen—the shooter at Pulse nightclub gunman—are automatically labeled terrorists. Mateen’s actions were despicable and indeed his actions were monstrous, but. The point here is that all three shooters committed nauseating acts of violence and no defense should be used to justify or normalize their behavior.

No matter their social capital, Black people on all levels of the social hierarchy are plagued with this vulnerability. Earlier this year Jay-Z spoke to CNN’s Van Jones about the importance of mental health and the stigma within Black communities. At one point, the music legend joked that “as scared as Black folks are of the cops, we’re even more scared of therapists.”

The issue at hand for most Black and Brown folks—especially the men—is that we rarely find someone who we can be assured will understand our plight. Hence, the larger issue is that we need more people of color in the field. We need people with whom to communicate our aches to, or at the very least, someone who will not dismiss us. It is difficult to explain this on paper, yet most people of color know exactly what I mean. With the exception of the arts, there are just  not enough places for men of color to express themselves.

Several reports have been published stating  that Black and Latino men seek out healthcare professionals at a lower rate than their Caucasian counterparts. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), members of the Latino community are less likely to communicate about mental health, period.

NAMI ignorantly claims, “Many Latinos do not seek treatment because they don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions or know where to find help.” Although not entirely incorrect, the statement neglects to mention the lack of trust as a contributing factor in why  Latino men do not seek help. NAMI does take into account cultural barriers such as some Latinos’ reliance on home remedies and language barriers. The organization ignores the heart of this matter– the issue of trust, which is also evident in the African American community as noted by Jay Z.

With the revelation of author Junot Díaz’s being sexually abused—although, he too is accused of sexual misconduct—along with the suicides of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, fashion designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain, and Golden Krust CEO Lowell Hawthorne within the last year,  those in positions of power must engage their communities about mental health. These influencers, including thinkers, entertainers, elected officials, members of the media, and artists, together with parents, educators, and healthcare professionals, can help to eradicate the taboo by  encouraging people to discuss it.. Art is powerful. Whether or not we want to admit it, popular culture shapes our perception and understanding of the world. And yes, I believe we can save lives with the mere act of chipping away at the taboo until it no longer is a taboo.

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Nelson Santana is  an assistant professor and collection development librarian at Bronx Community College and is also editor and producer for ESENDOM, an online magazine that documents the Dominican community.

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