May is National Mental Health Month. African-American boys are at particular risk for mental health issues as many of them live with untreated trauma and are exposed to harsh treatment and penalties for behavior considered a normal part of development in other cultures.
Mental health expert Rwenshaun Miller explains what we can do to help our boys.
WHY DO YOU THINK MENTAL ILLNESS IS SUCH A STIGMA IN THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY?
I believe mental illness is such a stigma in the African-American community for multiple reasons including ignorance, fear, and a mistrust of medical systems in this country. Ignorance is based on our lack of knowledge of what mental illness is and how it may present in an individual who is suffering. Common symptoms may be written off as other issues out of fear of being judged, labeled or condemned by others. In addition to that, we have a distrust for medical systems because we as a community were used for experiments throughout history, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES WITH AFRICAN-AMERICAN BOYS IN PARTICULAR?
With African-American boys, we must attend to their needs on their level. Boys are always taught to “suck it up” or “man up”. Therefore, we silence their emotional expressions and only allow them exhibit anger and happiness as an acceptable feeling. This limitation also limits their ability to process what is really going inside of them so we must first begin with helping them develop a language that includes more than happy, sad, and mad to describe how they feel.
We must also understand them as person and not a perceived diagnosis, while also understanding that traditional therapeutic models that are utilized by other populations may not always be effective. We must add culture to the way we treat mental health with African American boys.Various diagnoses such as depression or anxiety may be expressed differently in African-American males.
WHY DO YOU THINK SOME PEOPLE WON’T SEEK TREATMENT FOR THEMSELVES OR THEIR CHILDREN?
Similar to the foundation of stigma, there are multiple factors that contribute to a lack of seeking treatment. This includes ignorance, fear, ego and a lack of resources. Some people will not seek treatment because admitting that something is wrong and that you may need help is scary for them. We live in a time of the “strong” Black man and woman, admitting that you need help goes against that social ideology.
Some parents fear that their children needing treatment may be a reflection of them as parents and they allow their egos to dictate getting treatment for the child. Often times in our community we result to “pray about it” and everything will be okay. In other instances, people simply do not have the resources to obtain treatment. This could include but not limited to finances, transportation, or knowing where to go to talk to a therapist that looks like them.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SIGNS OF MENTAL ILLNESS?
Signs of mental illness can vary depending on the disorder but common signs for children include excessive worry or anxiety, feelings excessively sad, physical pain with obvious causes, frequent nightmares, frequent disobedience, loss of focus, withdrawal from friends and family or thoughts of suicide.
IS DEPRESSION CONSIDERED A MENTAL ILLNESS?
Yes, depression is a very common mental illness that is ranked as the number one cause of disability in the U.S. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and may include feeling sad, loss of interest in things you normally enjoy, appetite changes, low energy, feeling worthless, or thoughts of death or suicide.
HOW WOULD A PERSON KNOW IF THEIR LOVED ONE HAS MENTAL CHALLENGES OR IF IT’S “JUST A PHASE”?
A mental health challenge can vary in severity, however mental illnesses impacts an individual’s day to day ability to manage the demands and routines of life. Although this impact varies by illness, if a loved one is experiencing challenges it is okay 1) check on them and 2) get them help if needed. One symptom that I do not ignore as “just a phase” is thoughts of suicide.
HOW OFTEN DOES MENTAL HEALTH GO UNDIAGNOSED?
A large number of individuals in the African-American community live with undiagnosed mental health conditions and our community suffers as a result. The lack of diagnoses and seeking treatment result major issues such as increased rates of suicide and substance abuse issues.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU SEE YOUR DOCTOR ONCE DIAGNOSED?
Once diagnosed, the clinician will provide a treatment plan to address your presenting issues. Treatment may vary between once or twice a week to once or twice a month. For more severe cases, some individuals may require inpatient treatment and stay at a facility or hospital. But as general maintenance, why not get check-ups similar to physical check-ups?
WHAT TREATMENT OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE?
Treatment options available for addressing mental health challenges including therapy and medication. However, these are not the only options. Meditation, journaling, and coloring are also good supplements to therapy. With the advancement of technology, various applications guide you through meditations and even allow you to text with live therapists. Mental wellness also correlates with physical wellness. Therefore, exercise and nutrition are also treatment options.
For individuals experiencing a crisis, the crisis text line provides assistance when you text HOME to 741741 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255
WHAT TYPE OF DOCTOR DOES A PERSON NEED TO GO TO FIRST TO SEEK HELP?
This can vary depending on the symptoms that a person is exhibiting. Psychiatrists are trained in medical treatment of psychological disorders and are normally advised for medication management.
Psychologists are trained in providing diagnoses with clinical testing for presenting symptoms and are capable of addressing those issues via therapy. Licensed professional counselors and Licensed Clinical Social Workers also have the ability to diagnose and provide therapy treatment.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO AN ADULT YOU KNOW HAS A MENTAL ILLNESS, BUT WON’T GO TO SEE A DOCTOR?
I would advise them to at least give it a try. If you have been struggling with something for an extended period of time and what you have to tried to feel better has not worked, why not try something to could possibly help.
WHICH MENTAL DISORDERS ARE OFTEN SEEN IN CHILDREN AND TEENS?
Anxiety, Disruptive Behavior Disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, mood disorders such as depression, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and eating disorders are of often seen in children and teens.
ONCE DIAGNOSED, WILL THE SYMPTOMS RETURN IN THE FUTURE?
Symptoms can return in the future but a person must understand that mental wellness is an ongoing process. We are constantly faced with new stressors, and challenges and therefore treatments that once worked may not always be effective. As various things change with your mental health, you must adjust as well. An individual’s diagnoses may also change throughout this process as well.
HOW ARE MENTAL DISORDERS DIAGNOSED IN YOUNG CHILDREN?
Young children should be first seen by a medical doctor to determine rule out physical reasons for the presenting issue. Following this examination, a mental health clinician will use a diagnostic criteria to determine the mental health challenge based on reports of behavior from the parents, caregivers, and teachers. The clinician will also observe and speak with the child depending on their age to assist with the diagnostic process.
Rwenshaun Miller answers your question on the next page.