As I ease into the spring season, I can’t help but take in the beauty and splendor of flowers in bloom while gazing into the souls and spirits of my sisters and brothers. As we look onto each other’s eyes for a few seconds, I silently ask them, do you talk about your feelings of anguish? Have you ever shared your feelings of pain or shame with anyone? Do you have bad nerves? Have you ever experienced social isolation? Have you ever thought about death? In our brief shared glance, I imagine that they respond affirming the importance of mental health in enhancing the overall quality of their lives. In honor of “May is Mental Health Month,” I would like to take this opportunity to raise community awareness of mental health conditions and mental wellness for African-Americans.
In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General published a report on the Mental Health for African-Americans. In this report, it cited startling statistics about our mental health. Did you know that suicide rates among young Black men are as high as those of young white men? Did you know that from 1980–1995, the suicide rate among African-Americans ages 10 through 14 increased 233% compared to 120% of comparable non-Hispanic whites? Did you know that African-American children and youth constitute about 45% of children and youth in the public foster care system and more than half of all children waiting to be adopted? Did you know that 25% of African-American youth exposed to violence met diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Did you know that nearly 60% of older African-American adults who needed mental health care were not receiving mental health services? And, did you know that African-American females were more likely than African-American males to attempt suicide and African-American males were more likely to complete a successful suicide?
Needless to say, these statistics are very disconcerting. Our need for mental health support has its roots in our legacy of slavery. Think about it! How many of your ancestors, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and other family members received mental health support resulting from the trauma of slavery? How many of your family members received mental health support for their trauma experienced during the Jim Crow and segregation eras? How many of your family members received mental health support as a result of the trauma experienced during the Civil Rights era? How many of you have received mental health support as a result of chronic substance use and abuse in your family? How many of you have received mental health support to cope with the grief and loss associated with family members who have been victims of community violence? How many of you have received mental health support as a result of loosing a loved one to the criminal justice system? And lastly, how many of you have received mental health support for sexual assault, rape, incest, and/or or domestic violence by a loved one or family member?
My beloved people, we have a great need for mental health support in our community. In the County of Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, there is a prevalence of the following conditions in our mental health system:
• Anxiety–this is characterized by excessive worry about a variety of every day problems for at least 6 months or longer and may be accompanied by physical symptoms, fatigue, headache, muscle tension, panic attacks, difficulty falling and staying asleep, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, feeling out of breath, heart palpitations, hot flashes, nightmares, and startled responses.
• Stress–this is different from anxiety as stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, worried or even anxious. What is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Stress is typically related to a particular event or situation that is causing the stress for example, going through a divorce, experiencing a job loss, or parenting may create stress.
• Depression–this is characterized by persistent sadness or irritable mood, pronounced changes in sleep, appetite and energy; difficulty thinking, concentrating and remembering; lack of interests in pleasurable activities that were once enjoyed; feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopeless; recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. These symptoms last for two months or longer.
• Grief & Loss–is characterized by a normal reaction to loss provided it does not last for an extended period of time, that is, beyond two months. Grief is trigger related (usually by the death or loss of a loved one); the person may feel better when supported by family or loved ones or may feel better in certain situations. Grief and Loss is usually experienced for a shorter period of time where as depression is persistent and recurrent accompanied with feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Our community can benefit from mental health support. We must take the first step in removing the stigma associated with mental health. On behalf of the County of Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, I invite you to visit our website at http//dmh.lacounty.gov to view all of our services and programs, especially our Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention services. Mental health is vital to our physical and spiritual well-being. Without it, individually and collectively, we face the possibility of passing on our despair, internalized pain, and emotional turmoil to the next generation. Let’s take that first step together. Let’s end the cycle of unresolved trauma starting with YOU.
Yolanda Whittington is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and is a Mental Health Clinical District Chief for the County of Los Angeles Department of Mental Health responsible for managing, monitoring, and developing mental health programs and services for children, transitionally age youth, adults, older adults and families in the community of South Los Angeles.