Ways to overcome stigma around mental illness in the black community

Jan 16, 2018
Originally published on January 16, 2018 5:15 pm

Growing up in Alabama and Kalamazoo, Calvin Greene always felt different. He thought his hyperactivity couldn't simply be a product of an energetic personality. But it wouldn’t be until after he was awarded parole in his mid-twenties, though, that he would receive a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Bipolar Disorder.

But Greene’s treatment process would come with unique challenges due to the stigma attached to issues of mental health within the African-American community.  

Napoleon Harrington, founder of Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group in Southfield and president of the Michigan Mental Health Counseling Association, specializes in treating people with multicultural backgrounds. Through his work, he’s learned that cultural context is crucial in treating people of diverse upbringings.

“Cultural context is extremely important because people, their behavior, is in a sense judged according to their cultural context, and the reality is a lot of the work that we’ve done in therapy did not necessarily have a cultural consideration to it,” Harrington says.

Listen to Stateside's interview with Greene and Harrington above.

Harrington sees progress in his field, though, as more professionals understand or contribute to an understanding of how someone’s culture and racial background might affect their mental health. 

Distrust in a historically intolerant system, he says, is one major barrier for many black Americans.  

“It’s hard to trust a system and people who work within it — especially if you’re thinking that it may not be in your best interest,” Harrington says.

Greene, who now works as a community health volunteer, says after going through the prison system, mental health professionals in the Kalamazoo area helped him understand decisions he made earlier in life. 

“If I was more in tune with what I was dealing with at earlier stages throughout my life, then I probably wouldn’t have made the decisions that I made that got me caught up into the street criminal activity,” he said.

Harrington says Greene’s experience is common among people he works with, explaining that a combination of distrust in the system and limited access to resources has real consequences for the African-American community.

“If they had a greater level of trust in the system, or if they had the ability to detect or have some early detection of some of the symptoms that they’re experiencing, they would certainly have the ability to intervene, and even prevent some of the decisions that would have been made,” Harrington said.

Harrington and Greene also say faith in the African-American community occupies a complicated space in the mental health treatment process. Greene explains a strong spiritual tradition encourages a lot of people dealing with mental health issues to turn to prayer rather than medicine.

Harrington speaks to this: “The challenge with that is if it doesn’t change right away then, my faith, I’m in a crisis of faith,” he says. “You kind of find yourself in a situation of condemnation in your faith and then compounded with the mental health problem, it creates a big conundrum for people because they find themselves not necessarily being able to address the mental health problem, and now I have a crisis of faith, which is a really strong support system for people who are dealing with mental health problems.”

From here, Harrington and Greene agree that a change in language and a deeper understanding of cultural context will drive the mental health profession closer to tapping into this underserved population.

For starters, using the term “mental health” rather than “mental illness,” they say, is crucial.

Building trust in the mental health care system is also essential.

“People tend to get well when they trust you and they have an idea that they know you, so a personable approach is extremely important. And making sure that you’re realistic, and being honest about what some of the associated risks of going into the therapeutic process are,” Harrington said. “People don’t always understand that peeling back one layer of the onion can let you know that there’s another layer that’s under there as well.”

He adds that his own racial identity serves sometimes as a “double-edged sword.” While he’s determined to gain the trust of his patients, he also recognizes he is affiliated with a system that has historically failed the communities he works with. For instance, if a case goes to court, he is responsible for writing a psychological report, which has serious implications on the lives of the people he works with. Trust, therefore, is crucial in the therapy process.

Today, Greene says he feels “fabulous.” He works with numerous mental health organizations in the Kalamazoo area, promoting recovery and awareness through art, music, and volunteer work. He’s also getting ready to receive his master’s degree from the University of Michigan–Dearborn with an end goal of becoming an art therapist.

“I’m representing a system that doesn’t have a face, doesn’t have a class, doesn’t have a color,” he says. “When we talk about mental health, everyone has some type of issue. So to be a voice through my art, through my music, through volunteering — I feel that I’m doing God’s work.”

Copyright 2018 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.