Written by Suma Hodge, M.S.
“Who? Him? Oh that’s just crazy Uncle Ray Ray” – a common phrase heard in regards to a family member who doesn’t have it all “together” or always doing something outrageous. Folks tend to blame it on the alcohol or drugs, however do we really know the depth of “crazy Uncle Ray Ray?” Could it be possible that he suffers from a mental health illness?
In the urban communities, many people go undiagnosed for serious mental health illnesses. I have noticed as a clinical coordinator of a behavioral program in Arizona and a former substance abuse counselor in New Jersey, that whether it is the lack of health coverage or a blind decision not to seek help due to the fear of being considered weak, African Americans are living with mental health illnesses without proper care.
Socioeconomic circumstances are linked to mental health awareness in the urban community. Those who are homeless, incarcerated, poverty stricken, the under educated or those with substance abuse issues, are at a higher risk to be misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. In 1996, MHA commissioned a national survey on clinical depression, which reported that 63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness. This is higher than the overall survey average of 54 percent.
Illicit drug use is frequently a form of self-medicating among people with mental health illnesses and leads to incarceration instead of treatment. According to Human Rights Watch, African Americans account for 14 percent of regular drug users, however they accounted for 37 percent of drug arrests. Who should be blamed, the system for rushing them into prison, or those individuals who will not seek help?
As you read this article, you may already be thinking of many people that could possibly fit these descriptions. You may start to wonder how many friends, family members, or those from around the block that were always under the influence of one drug or another and maybe need to have a diagnosis.
One may begin to wonder ‘Why do we suffer in silence?’ ‘Who should I talk to? Where do I go?’
African American women are more likely to feel depression through physical symptoms; aches, tenderness, etc. African American men are more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia although their symptoms may scream PTSD. Why wouldn’t you avoid the doctors? This fear is true and real. However, we have to decide that the time has come to stand up and demand the care that we should receive or advocate for our Uncle Ray’s.
Speaking up is hard when the individual does not look like you. You ask yourself; will they understand that my PTSD is from the fear of being shot late night walking home from work? Do they have the same struggles of how will they feed their children tonight? Do they know what it is like to self-medicate to ease our thoughts enough to lay our heads down at night? African-American patients who see African-American physicians rate their physicians’ styles of interaction as more participatory resulting in better interactions. When the doctor becomes a concern, ask questions such as; have you ever treated an African American? Do you feel that our cultural background will affect our communication or my treatment? Do you plan on integrating my beliefs with my treatment? These questions not only allow you to know what kind of care you will be receiving and to determine if you need different doctor.
African Americans rely heavily on faith and community empowerment. African Americans come together in time of need despite adversity. We need to recognize signs when outside help may be necessary and support those who decided to take their feelings, worries, and concerns to professionals. We must come together for those we see struggling to get out of bed, and for all the Uncle Ray Ray’s in our families.
There are services available to you through Bayless Healthcare South Phoenix Clinic, Sovereign Health Addiction and Dual Diagnosis (866) 566-3749, or any Sovereign Health, 24-hour free and confidential information on substance use disorders issues or mental health illness for yourself or others and receive referrals to treatment at 1-800-662-HELP.