“I know for me, if depression or any other mental health concern was brought up around my family or neighbors it was always met with the assertion that mental illness is ‘for white people,’” said Rochester native, Sabine Bradley.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reported that African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to develop serious mental health problems than other groups. They are also 10 percent more likely to report psychological distress than Caucasians. In 2014, the suicide death rate for African-American men was more than four times that of African-American women.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the most common mental health disorders in the African-American community include depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, only a quarter of African-Americans seek mental health treatment.
In 2001, the Attorney General reported that African-Americans’ symptoms often presented differently than what most clinicians were trained to handle which has led to Blacks being more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed than Caucasians.
Minorities in general are reported to have more serious psychological symptoms than Caucasians due to likelihood of living in impoverished communities and exposure to violence. The lack of knowledge surrounding mental health in the black community has contributed to stigmas which have traveled through generations.
The Surgeon General also notes the discrepancy in data concerning African-Americans and blacks. Data is often skewed because the population is not accurately defined. African-Americans are people whose roots derived from the African slave trade, while the term “black” has come to encompass anyone rich in melanin. In many reports, these two populations are combined into one which is inaccurate and unethical.
Darci Lane-Williams, director of the Women and Gender Center at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) comes from a family stricken with mental illness. “My cousin and I joke all the time that we have ‘Lane craziness.’ We don’t typically have physical illness running through my family; we have mental illness running through my family.”
In her teens, Williams was diagnosed with dysthymia. Dysthymia is a chronic form of long-term depression. She also has several family members who were diagnosed with illnesses ranging from bipolar disorder to ADHD. Her teenaged daughter was also diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Although mental illness is prevalent in Williams’ family, some members still argue it’s a test by God: “It’s like you’re punished for acknowledging ‘I am really struggling here.’ I think that it’s very unfair to put people in a position where if they feel like if their faith is strong enough, they will be okay and if it’s not, then their faith isn’t strong enough. We wouldn’t do that to somebody with diabetes, which is a very common disease in the black community.”
The Attorney General and NAMI both credit religion for being a foundation in the stigmas surrounding mental illness in the black community. The same Godly tests expressed by members of Williams’ family are shared by many others in the black community.
Dr. Kijana Crawford, a sociology and anthropology professor at RIT, specializes in African-American culture. She said, “[Mental] institutions were never a part of our culture. It was a family thing. You took care of your family. The institution that did come forth and offer a lot of support was the black church and the pastors.”
“Of course, we know that in some cases this was helpful, and in others it was not because medication was needed. But historically, black people did not have access to medication nor the means by which to pay for it,” Crawford added.
Melvin Cross, Jr. is the pastor of Glory House International in Rochester, NY. Pastor Cross comes from a family of pastors and has been in the ministry for 22 years. Cross said traditionally the church has done the black community a disservice. “It’s looked at as a demon or something that’s spiritual, when it could have spiritual roots to it, but it does not negate the fact that mental health needs to be addressed in a practical way.”
Pastor Cross continued, “If you want to pray and believe in God for stability in your mind or emotions, let’s go for it. But at the same time, let’s go get some help. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust God.”
Although Cross assisted congregants, he said the groundbreaking moment was when he witnessed a relative battling the illness. “It allowed me to have compassion and see first-hand the need for people to seek mental help. We’re a family of pastors and it happened to us. It just made me happy to see my parents didn’t just ‘pray it away,’ they sought professional help,” said Pastor Cross.
“It was an eye-opening experience to see black people do have mental illnesses,” he added.
Ashley Cross is Pastor Cross’ wife and the founder and executive director of Launch Outreach in Tulsa, Okla. Launch Outreach is a “girls home” for young women who are aging out of the foster care system or experiencing homelessness. The program teaches life skills to make sure they are adequately prepared for adulthood.
Cross said some of the program’s young women have troubled pasts that have contributed to mental health issues. In working with these women, she’s learned the importance of shattering stigmas associated with mental health. “We need to normalize being vulnerable and transparent. The black community has a big ‘what happens in this house, stays in this house’ motto and that has become how we live life. It’s very dangerous.”
She added, “The bible says, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ You can have all the faith in the world but there are also things you have to do obtain your healing.”
Pastor Cross agreed: “Look, everyone needs to sit on somebody’s couch. Therapy is so beneficial. We all need someone to talk to. It can be particularly freeing to talk to someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t have a vested interest.”
Sabine Bradley is a second year English literature major at The College at Brockport and a Rochester City School District (RCSD) graduate. Bradley said no one spoke to her about mental health in school or at home. In fact, her mother struggled with mental health most of her life. It wasn’t until Bradley started to experience her own struggles that she learned what was happening.
Bradley said, “I felt totally abnormal and ashamed. Not being exposed to the topic early on, I felt like there was something wrong with me or taboo about what I was feeling. It made it a lot harder to even identify my feelings, yet alone begin reaching out for help.”
At 14, Bradley noticed a change in her mental health. “It manifested in a few ways, but the best way to explain it was a contempt for everything and everyone. I had low self-esteem, but also resented everyone around me, strangers even, simply because I resented the entire world and my feelings.”
“I just felt like the entire world was such a dangerous and hateful place, and that I must be just as awful if I’m a part of it. It felt so permanent and personal,” she added.
At 15, Bradley was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Since then, she’s been on a treatment plan including intensive behavioral therapy and processing techniques. In addition, her friends have provided a great support system.
The lack of knowledge surrounding mental health in schools is not a taboo idea. Dr. Crawford, RIT sociology and anthropology professor, said the fundamental structural racism in the district has contributed to the issue. “The majority of the students are black and Latino but the teachers are white. Something is wrong with that picture. Then the majority of the teachers in the City School District do not live in the city. Their children do not attend school in the city.”
“They have no vested interest in what happens to those kids and a lot of that has to do with how integration happened. We got what we wanted but we didn’t keep what we needed,” Crawford pointed out.
The 2015 U.S. Census American Community Survey revealed 38.6 percent of the city’s population identified as black. As of the 2016-2017 school year, 57.3 percent of the Rochester City School District’s students enrolled identified as black. In December 2016, WHEC-10 reported 45.8 percent of Rochester children live in poverty.
Thomas Soule has been a social worker in the district for 21 years. Currently, he is working at School Without Walls. Soule, who grew up in East Irondequoit, saw the notorious Rochester riots as a child and was influenced to work with minorities.
“Although, I’m white, I’ve had to make it important in my life to become as culturally competent as possible. It helps me to connect with and help students," Soule said. Last year, Soule participated in a workshop the district put together to teach how structural bias affects the students.
In May 2016, the Democrat and Chronicle reported the district held a three-day anti-racism workshop for staff. The workshop was moderated by Dr. Joy DeGruy, nationally recognized speaker on culturally responsive education.
Ruth Turner, executive director of RCSD’s Student Support Services, said these workshops with Dr. DeGruy are one of many things the district is doing to help students. Turner said: “We’re very big with restorative practice. It’s a social science in which people use certain protocols to right wrongdoings, and allow students and staff alike a safe space in which there is shared power and equal voice. We also do a lot around suicide and depression for educational purposes and to help students process with each other.”
“What we’ve started with Dr. Joy DeGruy has only begun with three schools: School #5, School #39 and School Without Walls. We’ve been deeply training staff on her models and teaching cultural responsive curriculum and delivery. In the upcoming school year, we’re hoping to add more schools,” she added.
In the meantime, Bradley, who graduated from the RCSD, said she hopes sharing her story will help others understand they are not alone: “Authenticity is something I’m striving for lately, that, and vulnerability. Since so many people face this but we’re all so quiet, we think we are alone. Someone has to be the one to say ‘Hey, I’m struggling. So, if you are too, you don’t have to hide.’”