ental health is a stigmatized subject that still isn’t discussed much in our society. You might be able to call into work if you have a cold or flu or some other physical ailment, but it’s less accepted to call in because you’re suffering from mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. And it’s way less likely for someone to seek treatment for mental health issues-particularly in the Black community.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health issues due to social economic issues like homeless and exposure to violence. And yet, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only a quarter of African Americans seek mental health treatment compared to 40 percent of Whites.
Why the discrepancy?
Experts cite a few factors. Reduced access to health care is one. Health provider bias is another. But one of the biggest stumbling blocks are our cultural pride points, practices and pressures that get in the way of seeking help. Dismissing depression as something you can “snap” out of and believing that we as a people are so strong (we survived slavery, after all!) that we can endure whatever this life hands us are misguided notions. Also, relying on clergy during times of despair is great, but it may not be enough if you’re suffering from clinical depression, PTSD or bipolar disorder.
Another fact: We often like to visit health care providers who look like us. And there aren’t many African American mental health professionals. Psychology Today estimated in 2014 that just 2 percent of psychiatrists and psychologists were African American in the United States.
Looking to fill this gap are professionals like those available at Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group, founded by a trio of doctors aiming to improve mental health in Black, urban communities.
BLAC sat down with Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group’s founders and therapists, Drs. Napoleon Harrington and Richarne Fuqua, about the importance of addressing and identifying mental health challenges in urban families and communities.
Are there differences in mental illness when looking at urban communities compared to suburban communities?
Dr. Richarne Fuqua: We’re always doing reading and research. What it says is, when you’re dealing with situations of social economic stress and poverty, that increases anything about 30 percent. So, where it's not a different type of problem, it affects those who have financial challenges differently. A lot of times, you don’t think you have the ability to see someone if you want to see someone, whether it's medical or mental. Also, there’s just the stress of daily life, living and trying to meet financial needs.
Napoleon Harrington: The essence of the problem stays the same, but it manifests differently. So a suburban family, depending on the type of resources they may have, might have more resources to address the problem. Urban families might not necessarily have the same level of income to solve the problems. They may not have the same access to resources and then we have to deal with this whole idea that Black and brown families don’t necessarily look at counseling and therapy support as a positive. There is still this stigma surrounding it: I am powerless, I am weak, I am hopeless if I go get help from someone. And nothing could be further from the truth. The best of the best have gotten help, and have actually thrived because they’ve gotten it.
Why do you think it is taboo to talk about mental health in Black and brown families and other ethnic groups?
Harrington: From a cultural perspective, I think it starts with a foundational distrust of the system. Any system that Black and brown folks interface with, there’s a hint of skepticism that comes along with it. If you need medical attention, we have less desire to go see someone to get a diagnosis because we don’t know how it's going to affect us. Beyond that, I think it goes back to that conversation about being either powerless or weak, because you can’t handle it on your own. Black families have a history of being strong families. For example, if you find out that Uncle Jojo is dealing with anxiety and he needs to take a pill to address his anxiety or get some support, then that somehow makes Uncle Jojo weak. If we keep that pervasive mentality in our neighborhoods, it continues to feed into a cycle and people won’t get the help that they need.
Fuqua: I also think it's a lack of knowledge. Very often we have been trained to get up, move on when it happens and keep pressing. What we are trying to do is offer education and insight on mental health and mental wellness. There’s nothing wrong with going somewhere and just unloading and getting it off of your chest. But very often as a people, culturally you get up and you move and you push through. So to say that you need some help or to say that you need to talk to somebody gives an appearance of weakness. We want to change that and say ‘no.’ You’re absolutely strong, but you’re even better because we all need somebody at some particular point in time. We are here to help you and we understand.
Are people or families more willing to seek help from professionals that look like them, as opposed to those who don’t?
Fuqua: Nationally, the organization that we belong to is the American Counselors Association, and they’re really trying to move forward in educating the privileged person versus the underrepresented person. So, we don’t even necessarily classify it by race or sexuality or gender. But just educating on what that means, so you can be a little more well-rounded and in tune. Could there be (issues)? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that if a person is a different color or gender that they do not understand you. So I’m glad that the national organization has taken that up to tell us to educate ourselves more-especially if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t look like you. But just because you're dealing with someone who does, doesn’t mean that you know their situation or struggle.
Harrington: Color doesn’t change the impact of the support that you can get, but sometimes it does lend to a more comfortable atmosphere or an easier talking environment. But getting help is what’s most important, period.
What advice would you give to families or individuals who are afraid to seek professional help for mental health?
Fuqua: I’m legally bound to keep your secrets in terms of what you’re struggling with and I’m also trained. It’s different than talking to your mother, barber, stylist or your girlfriend. I’m here and I can really help you navigate through whatever is going on. And again, if there’s a serious issue, I can also give the proper advice for that issue. Most of the people that I’ve seen haven’t had issues that require medication, but to me that’s the great thing about coming to someone that is trained. Because I do have those who I’ve said, ‘you know what, we may need to take this a little further.’ But the trust has already been there and we’ve laid out some things and worked out some smaller situations that they’ve dealt with. So if I suggest we need to take this a little bit further, it's OK. But the conversation started with just educating them on who I am and what I can offer.
How do you as therapists, counselors, psychologist, reset yourselves after absorbing and exchanging energy during a session?
Fuqua: One of the things is that we have to leave it at the office. You have to mentally let it go, and know that you can’t carry it with you. What I always tell people is that you want to incorporate some type of self-care into your daily regimen or your weekly regimen, where you are doing something where the situation pours into you. Because what we do in therapy is pour into people, I am listening to you, whomever’s in front of me, and I am giving you the best of what I have right now. You have people back-to-back-to-back, and that can be exhausting. So there has to be a time during the week, where I allow other people to pour into me without doing anything. It can be a pedicure, manicure, massage or hanging with my husband. I have to have something weekly. I have to leave it here. I can’t carry people’s issues home with me.
Harrington: I think it’s important to have a remarkable system that you know helps to put you back to square one. For me, my faith system has been a big piece of that. When I feel overwhelmed, I get the opportunity to pray or to sit and be one with myself and just let air hit my ears and no sounds bother me. Number two is having the opportunity to hang with my family. My wife is a pretty cool person and sometimes we get a chance to go travel or hang out. Just spend some time with people that actually understand you and you don’t have to say much. I agree, we have to leave it here as much as possible, but we’re in a relationship-driven field, so you get connected with people. So, sometimes you think about them when they leave.
Is there anything else we should know about seeking help with your mental health?
Harrington: Don’t think you can do it alone. You need support and you need help. I believe that God allowed Dr. Richarne and I to meet, so our visions can come together and build something that I think, since 2008, has been quite meaningful to a lot of people. Life takes courage, and we want to encourage people to take some risks in their lives to live the quality of life that they deserve and not to live beneath their privilege. I think we will begin to see a difference in not just the psyche of people, but we will see a difference in the way they treat themselves and each other.
Fuqua: Make sure you understand mental wellness, mental health, mental illness, and understand the difference between those three. People have no problem going to the doctor, no problem getting their tires rotated or the oil changed, going to the dentist for their check up, getting your eyes checked … you know, your maintenance, but not mental wellness maintenance. There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m going in for my mental wellness checkup.’
The Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group is located at 29556 Southfield Road, Suite #200, in Southfield. They offer a wide range of services including group and personal workshops, couple/marriage counseling, life coaching, pastoral/faith-based counseling, counseling for people with depression, anxiety, ADHD/ADD, PTSD, sexual abuse trauma and more. Call 888-618-6226 or visit ambassadorcounseling.com.
JASMINE ESPY IS A BLAC DETROIT INTERN.