Black people in the United States have had a tumultuous history, to say the least, and in recent years this has come to the forefront of the public consciousness. All politics aside, due to the racially charged climate in recent years, the recent and ongoing police brutality, and police shootings of Black people in America, there have been increased levels of anxiety and stress among Black people all across the country. Living in a constant state of elevated stress and tension can produce negative effects on someone’s mental health. When combined with a substance use disorder, this can lead to very negative outcomes. In this article, we will examine the state of mental health and substance abuse among Black people today, and provide helpful resources for recovery from both of these conditions.
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While Black Americans experience substance abuse at slightly lower rates than their Caucasian peers overall, Black adolescents exhibit slightly higher rates of substance abuse than their white counterparts.
Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders occur at lower rates for Black people than for many other ethnicities. There are some exceptions, however, and these include PTSD, agoraphobia, and dysthymia, or a persistent depressive disorder.
We have gathered many helpful resources that are specific to Black people that can provide help and support if someone is struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
Mental Health Among Black Americans
Mental health issues are just as common among Black Americans as they are among any other race or ethnic group. That being said, there is a tendency for Black people to seek professional help for mental health issues less frequently than their white peers. This has many contributing factors, including a distrust of the medical establishment in America by the Black community, due in large part to past betrayals of Black people by medical professionals under the guise of “free” medical treatment. While many of the issues that play into the wariness of seeking professional medical help are beyond someone’s power to control, this article will strive to provide as many different pathways to a solution as possible.
Among Black communities in America, mental health issues are often stigmatized or overlooked. One study from 2010 examined the perception of mental illness within Black communities and found that it is somewhat different than it is in other demographics. Due to racial discrimination in the present day, and especially given the history of oppression and inhumane treatment that Black people have endured, there seems to be a tendency to minimize mental health issues as something that must be hidden from others and dealt with in isolation. This attitude can lead to worsening mental health symptoms and a failure to recognize when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and, subsequently, a failure to seek professional psychiatric or medical care in a timely manner. This may also play a role in the fact that while the rates of mental health issues are fairly equal among Black and white Americans, the severity of mental illness seems to be greater among Black Americans. The reasons for this are unclear, but it may have to do with the fact that treatment is frequently only sought as the very last resort, resulting in symptoms escalating until treatment is finally sought.
That being said, there is a very heavy emphasis on social support and seeking religious counsel within the Black community in America that may overlap somewhat into the realm of mental healthcare. Black Americans have the highest church attendance out of any racial group in America, and church attendance has a demonstrated connection to mental health issues, particularly among Black Americans. In times of mental health distress, Black people tend to increase their participation at their church. There are other non-organizational religious practices that are also reported at higher levels during times of mental distress such as prayer, meditation, and reading religious literature. It is thought that increasing religious practices during times of distress is an effort to mobilize social support in an attempt to overcome mental discomfort. Whatever the reason, religious practices, gatherings, and a sense of community can be beneficial for someone who is struggling with mental health issues, although professional help is the most effective way to find relief from mental health conditions.
Black Americans experience the same rates of mental illness as their white peers, although there is still substantial fear regarding professional mental healthcare and treatment. One study found that the rates of fearing mental healthcare were roughly 2.5x greater among Black people than their white counterparts. While the stigma that accompanies mental illness remains present in the Black community, it seems that younger generations are more accepting of mental illness as something that requires professional help. There is still a significant disparity in the rates of Black Americans seeking mental healthcare compared to whites, although the gap is shrinking thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act. Greater access to health insurance, changing cultural attitudes toward mental health and wellness, combined with more open discussions about mental illness has begun to create change in the mental health landscape of Black people in America.
Substance Use Among Black Americans
While Black Americans have lower rates of substance abuse than white Americans overall, the duration of substance abuse issues seems to persist longer among Black people than for their white counterparts. It is noteworthy that substance abuse is more common among Black people living in major metropolitan areas compared to those living in rural areas. While the rates vary between the specific groups studied, among Black people, the rates of substance abuse in urban areas is almost twice as high as it is in rural areas.
Additionally, it should be noted that there are at least two distinct population groups that are commonly, albeit mistakenly, lumped together in the racial category of “Black” or “African American”. These two ethnic groups are African Americans and Black Caribbeans. African Americans are predominantly of direct, although distant, African descent, are American-born, and the major population centers of African Americans are in the Southeast of the country. The Black Caribbean racial group is predominantly 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, currently have family in their home country, and the population centers are in the Northern states. While these differences may seem trivial, there are differences between these two groups regarding substance abuse rates, so it is noteworthy to distinguish them as two discreet populations. For example, when an ethnic distinction is made, Black Carribeans, on average, exhibit 1.9% lower rates of substance abuse and 0.8% lower rates of substance dependence when compared to African Americans.
Even though Black people exhibit lower rates of lifetime substance abuse compared to some other ethnicities, rates of drug and alcohol use among Black adolescents are higher than their Caucasian peers. There may be many reasons for this, including a greater likelihood to live in urban areas where drugs are often more readily available, the increased stress of city life, reduced access to mental healthcare and treatment services, and increased levels of overall anxiety from racial stresses and pressures. While there is no single clear cause for the increased rates of substance abuse among Black adolescents, professional drug and alcohol treatment centers provide a clear and effective route to recovery.
Co-Occurring Disorders Among Black Americans
The rates of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions among Black people are generally lower than they are for many other ethnic groups, although there are some exceptions. In particular, PTSD, dysthymia, and agoraphobia are reported significantly more often in Black populations than in other racial groups, including Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians.
There is a strong 2-way connection between anxiety disorders, particularly PTSD, and substance use disorder. While the exact relationship is unclear, people with PTSD are just over 2x as likely to suffer from a substance use disorder at some point during their lifetime compared to someone without PTSD. Additionally, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to not only experience substance use disorders but are also more likely to experience substance dependence. For people with PTSD, there is an almost 3.5x higher chance of dependence, and people with agoraphobia are at a 2.5x higher risk of developing substance dependence.
The co-occurrence of mental health disorders and substance use disorders may complicate the addiction treatment process. Without comprehensive, dual-diagnosis care for both conditions at the same time, someone’s chances of recovery are greatly reduced. According to SAMHSA, with regard to treating co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder:
“…integrated, concurrent treatment that addresses both conditions simultaneously has generated strong empirical support, appears to be preferable to clients, and is increasingly considered the current standard of care, particularly when combining psychosocial and pharmacologic approaches.”
-SAMHSA T.I.P. 42, 2020 Edition, Page 87
Mental Health Resources For Black Americans
There are many mental health resources that are freely available online today that are by Black people, for Black people. Recognizing the signs of mental health challenges is only the first step, reaching out and asking for help is the next. Being able to do so safely and comfortably can go a long way toward allowing someone to speak up and say that one magic word: Help.
- Black Emotional And Mental Health Collective (BEAM): An organization that promotes and advocates for mental health awareness and accessibility in the Black community, they provide a helpful resources page and information on mobile crisis units in every state they are available.
- Black Mental Health Alliance: A national non-profit that connects people of color with therapists of color.
- Sista Afya: A Black Women’s mental health awareness and recovery non-profit organization, their website provides information, resources, and links to care so that Black Women may better protect and improve their mental health.
- Therapy For Black Girls: A mental health advocacy and awareness organization for Black Women, they also provide a directory of Black therapists in cities all over the country.
- Black Women’s Health Imperative: An advocacy and support organization, they provide information and resources to help Black women improve and maintain positive mental health practices.
- Black Girls Smile: A non-profit organization that works to improve mental health and wellness among young black women and girls.
- Therapy For Black Men: A hub for Black men to get connected with therapists and mental health professionals that can provide compassionate, culturally competent care tailored to the unique challenges and struggles of Black men in America today.
- Black Men Heal: A mental health support and advocacy site that provides several helpful community programs to help Black men improve and maintain positive mental health practices.
- Brother, You’re On My Mind: A partnership between the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, this is a fact sheet and resource guide to help Black men identify mental health issues and seek help.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 A 24/7 crisis hotline for anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide and other mental health crises.
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741 anytime, 24/7 to chat with a crisis counselor. They also have articles written by Black people, for Black people who are struggling with mental health issues.
- Aakoma Project: A mental health advocacy organization, the Aakoma Project works to educate people about mental health issues so that they can better identify them when they arise and seek appropriate help.
- QTOC – LGBTQ Psychotherapists of Color: A volunteer organization that provides a database and directory of therapists who specialize in therapy for minority populations.
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network: A mental health support organization, their website provides a searchable directory of therapists who are dedicated to helping queer and trans people of color.
- The Trevor Project: A non-profit that aims to support young LGBTQ people, they have a helpful guide on supporting the mental health of young Black LGBTQ people.
- Open Path: A nationwide non-profit organization, Open Path aims to connect people with low-cost, high-quality mental healthcare services either in-person or virtually.
- Black Mental Wellness: A mental health awareness and advocacy organization, their site provides a wealth of information and resource for Black people who may be struggling with mental health issues.
- Melanin & Mental Health: A directory of mental health professionals and resources for Black people that can provide listings of culturally competent mental health professionals that are sensitive to the issues facing People of Color.
- Eustress: A mental health organization that works to increase awareness and improve access to services in underserved communities.
- The Steve Fund: An organization that aims to improve mental health and wellness among Black American students and adolescents.
- NAMD Advocates: An advocacy organization that works to increase representation and visibility for Black and Brown people with disabilities.
- Black Mental Matters: A podcast about mental health issues among Black people, by Black people in the mental health profession.
- Black Disability Collective: A Facebook Group that is for people who identify as Black and disabled and provides an open forum for discussion and connection.
- Autistic People of Color Fund: A support and advocacy organization that supports Black and Brown people with autism, they have worked to provide microloans and grants to support marginalized autistic people.
- Mental Health America – Black History Month: A national non-profit organization, they have a page dedicated to mental health and Black people in America with dozens of helpful and educational resources.
Substance Abuse Resources For African Americans
There is a very large number of substance abuse treatment resources for Black Americans available. Just a few resources to help someone begin the journey of recovery include:
- SAMHSA Treatment Locator: A treatment locator tool that can help anyone find substance abuse, mental health, or co-occurring disorder treatment centers all over the country.
- FindTreatment.gov: A government-run website that holds a directory of thousands of state-licensed drug and alcohol treatment centers all over the country.
- SAMHSA National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357 A national helpline for anyone struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues.
- FreeRehab.Center: A free and low-cost treatment center locator, they provide a database of state or community-run treatment centers all across America.
- National Harm Reduction Coalition: An organization that advocates safe use habits among active drug users. Even if someone is not ready to quit using, they can still take steps to reduce the risks of drug use.