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People of color face disproportionate challenges and stigmas in accessing mental health care 

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The story of failed access to mental health care for people of color, and its connection to self-medicating addiction, has roots in the lack of investment in educating youth of color. According to representatives from the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only 3.7 percent of members of the American Psychiatric Association and 1.5 percent of members of the American Psychological Association are African-American, but adult African-Americans have 20 percent higher rates of serious psychological distress than white adults. White mental health practitioners have a limited ability to “culturally train” suitable healers without relatable cultural experience. We need more representation for people of color in the field of psychology.

The stigmas around receiving mental health care are exacerbated in the already stigmatized black community. It’s hard to imagine voluntarily sitting on someone’s couch who has no understanding of your cultural experience, leaving you very vulnerable (sometimes punitively so), and exposing your trauma to their judgment. I wouldn’t.

And although addiction is not a form of therapy to be celebrated, self-medicating remains a private (if temporary) coping mechanism for someone suffering from mental illness. To move away from that, people need to build trust in mental health care, which starts with feeling like they are able to release their trauma in a safe space.

Rates of bipolar disorder are similar between black and white Americans, totaling an estimated 2.3 million nationwide, as reported by Mental Health America. But how the disorder manifests in the context of higher poverty rates, lack of insurance and experiences within the criminal justice system looks different. According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Mental Health, more than half of the people diagnosed with bipolar disorder have histories of substance abuse, which is often criminalized disproportionately among people of color.
NAMI also reported in 2016 that El Paso County leads the country in both youth and adult suicide. (That measure can be statistically tricky, but there’s no doubt that our county has one of the biggest problems in the country.) Considering oft-repeated claims that Colorado Springs is one of the healthiest cities in the nation, this feels like a baffling contradiction. According to the aforementioned Department of Health and Human Services study, black teenagers are less likely than white teenagers to die by suicide, but black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide (8.3 percent) than white teenagers (6.2 percent).

Let the fact of that disparity sink in.

Factors that contribute positively to health (including mental health) include socioeconomic viability/status, cultural inclusion, education, exercise, access to healthy food, healthy relationships and access to health care. Adversely, when those things are not present, the trauma of living in constant crisis (and being on the lower rung of a racialized society), will naturally have the opposite effect.

Dr. Nathaniel Granger Jr., president-elect of the local division of the Society of Humanistic Psychology and professor of psychology at Pikes Peak Community College says, “Often the only representation that many people of color find within the mental health arena is [administered by] court order, or maybe a parole or probation officer, and these aren’t mental health [professionals]. They often serve as counselors or case managers. But for real therapy, and to have a real therapeutic relationship, it is critical that we have representation.”

Therapeutic models also make a difference. Granger promotes methods such as poetry, movement and music to aid in treating mental health problems in his patients, as opposed to “traditional” forms of therapy, which may carry a stigma. In 2009, Granger founded Be Real Ministries in the Springs, a nonprofit focused on helping those experiencing mental health issues build safe and therapeutic relationships. Be Real works with NAMI and the Department of Human Services locally through the “No More Secrets” campaign to help provide more appropriate access to mental health services for people of color.

But we must do more to fix the systemic issue. Empowering youth of color to obtain the education necessary to enter the medical and mental health fields could prove invaluable when it comes to healing the trauma of people of color.

Of course, that’s a big leap when our so many of our young people are failing to graduate from high school.

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