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Understanding and Overcoming Mental Distress among African-Americans

By: Matt Smith, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist

Mental distress is a term used to describe a range of symptoms and experiences of a person’s internal life that are

commonly held to be troubling, confusing or out of the ordinary. Mental Illness refers to a specific set of medically

defined conditions. A person in mental distress may exhibit some of the symptoms described in psychology, such;

anxiety, confused emotions, hallucinations, rage, depression and so on without being “ill” in a medical sense. Life

situations such as: bereavement, stress, lack of sleep, use of drugs or alcohol, assault, abuse or accident can induce

mental distress.

According to the Office of minority health, African-Americans comprise 12.9% of the U.S. population, yet they are

30% more likely that European Americans to report serious psychological distress. African-American are more likely to

have Major Depressive Disorder, and communicate higher instances of intense symptoms/disability. Nonetheless, much

of the research on the mental well-being of African-Americans is unable to separate race, culture, socioeconomic

status, ethnicity, or behavioral and biological factors. Discrimination within the healthcare community and larger

society, attitudes related to mental health, and general physical health contribute largely to the mental well-being of

African Americans.

Culture, which is understood to be a combination of common heritage beliefs, values and rituals are an important

aspect of racial and ethnic communities. African Americans are a resilient people who have withstood enslavement and

discrimination to lead productive lives and build vibrant communities. Throughout U.S. history, the African American

community has faced inequities in accessing education, employment, and health care. However, strong social,

religious, and family connections have helped many African Americans overcome adversity and maintain optimal mental


Many Americans, including African Americans, underestimate the impact of mental disorders. Many believe symptoms

of mental illnesses, such as depression, are “just the blues.” Issues of distrust in the health care system and mental

illness stigma frequently lead African Americans to initially seek mental health support from non-medical sources.

Often, African Americans turn to family, church and community to cope. Studies have shown that family participation

in a support group, counseling or a church group can improve the family’s ability to care for family members with

mental disorders and cope with the emotional distress of being a caregiver. The key in dealing or trying to cope with

mental distress is being able to talk about issues in a safe environment with either your general practitioner, pastor,

family member or a mental health professional. When talking to your Doctor talk about the issues and symptoms that

are hindering your health, how can you better cope through exercise, support groups, travel and additional ways

without being placed on medication if possible. If meds are needed make sure you are knowledgeable about the

adverse reactions that are associated with the medication. Research resources in your community and make sure that

your doctor understands your culture, values and lifestyle. Often times African-Americans are misdiagnosed and

placed on meds that are not suitable or the dosages are too high.