Discrimination Identity Mental Health Race

Let’s Talk About Minority Mental Health

I grew up with the idea that mental illness wasn’t real. “It’s an excuse,” my mom would say to me, “You’re lazy, so you have ADD. You want to complain, so you have depression.” In a predominantly Asian suburb, this was a piece of common knowledge imparted by our traditional parents. I heard about people committing suicide on the news, but they never looked like me. Everything I’d been taught suggested that our race was not susceptible to this strange, imaginary illness. Mental illness was a “white person’s disease,” and it didn’t touch me, or frankly, any people of color. It wasn’t until I was older and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, depression, and ADD (it’s a mouthful, I know) that I realized the these invisible illnesses were very real, and very, very pervasive. As I personally grappled to accept the strange symptoms that ravaged my mind, I watched the news and learned that other people whose complexions were darker, yellower, browner were fighting illness and committing suicide, even at my own seemingly perfect university. But, I still wondered, even as society moves toward the destigmatization of mental illness, why do all these diseases still have white faces?

Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that at least half of Americans will struggle with mental illness in their lives. Of that number, in the past year, African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate Caucasian Americans used them ,and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate Caucasian Americans used them. Why is that?

Communities of color often hold stigmas against mental illness. According to a study conducted by Monnica Williams, PhD in psychology and the Clinical Director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic, LLC, in 2011 on African American men and women’s attitudes on mental illness, their attitudes are not very open to acknowledging psychological problems, are very concerned about stigma associated with mental illness. Also, many black communities lack information about mental health, which leads to the belief that a mental health condition is a personal weakness or “some sort of punishment from God.” Saying you have “the blues” in an African American community is interchangeable with having depression. But, in reality the two are very different; unlike recovering from depression, one can snap out of “the blues.” David Marion, PhD in psychology and a member of the African American community, cites “socialization” of the “strong black man/woman” as another reason for this epidemic. According to Marion, the stigma is that “Strong Black [people] should be able to handle any and everything in their lives. We’ve been socialized to believe we should be able to work through any problems that happen in our lives or marriage. If we cannot, that is a signal that we are weak.”

Misconceptions about mental illness abound with Latino communities as well; it’s not called “Depression,” it’s  “nervios” (nervousness), tiredness, or a physical ailment.

Asian people also refuse to accept the reality that is mental illness, citing weakness in character instead of actual illness. It is likely that the Asian community has at least partially internalized the model minority myth, the idea that a minority group’s members are held to higher degree of success than the population average. Today, society sees them as they see themselves: mechanical and incapable of hurting.

There is a link between the systemic racism that these minority groups face and mental illness. Research conducted by a team at UCLA in 2015 shows that racism faced by minority groups can be a trigger for mental illness. This discrimination creates a vicious cycle: fear of being more harshly judged than a white person often leads to more stigmatization of mental illness in minority communities.

But even when minorities do recognize illness, it’s often just as hard to recognize it as it is to treat it. Most psychologists and psychiatrists are not people of color (only around 30% are people of color), and that small chunk gets even more subdivided as you account for different ethnic and racial groups. This leads to ineffective treatment in minority groups. Research by the APA (American Psychology Association) shows that diversity in psychologists may provide insights on the social, economic, and environmental disadvantages that minorities face. Minorities have also reported facing microaggression while receiving treatments from healthcare professionals, leading to even more aggrandizing of pre-existing stigma and hesitation to treatment.

The social climate of minorities dealing with mental illness is definitely a rough one. But, hopefully positive change will come, beginning with the destigmatization and improvement of services for mentally ill people of color and increased transparency of mental illness in media. I, personally, have hope that this silent sickness will no longer be muted. Though organizational change within healthcare services and education is yet to come, now is the time to foster a culture of awareness and acceptance within minority communities. Understanding mental illness in spaces of color is the first step to healing our communities.


Penn’s Mental Health Resources:

  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): 215-898-7021 215-349-5490 (nights and weekends – ask for the CAPS counselor on call)
  • Chaplain’s Office: 215-898-8456
  • Student Health Service: 215-746-3535
  • Public Safety Special Services 24/7 Hotline: 215-898-6600
  • Public Safety Emergency Communications Center: 215-573-3333
  • Student Intervention Services: 215-898-6081
  • Graduate Student Center: 215-746-6868
  • College Houses and Academic Services: 215-898-5551