Mental health in Black communities: Finding power in vulnerability

James walking outside in city

For James, acknowledging that he may be experiencing depression was a big first step. But what happens next? 

Society has historically sent a message that people who are suffering from depression or mental illness in general should be able to help themselves “feel better.”  That dangerous expectation is a burden for those in pain. It’s even more amplified for young Black men like James, creating an additional barrier to care. 

Indeed, according to the American Psychiatric Association1, only one in three Black and Hispanic adults who reported symptoms of anxiety or depression received treatment, compared to almost half of white adults.  

James ultimately accessed the treatment he needed, and today he’s using his voice and personal journey to help others. 

Burden of stigma

James first began experiencing symptoms of depression around late 2018. He would wake up feeling sad and not know why and became more withdrawn from friends and family. He tried to push through these feelings but when his friends voiced their concerns, he realized he may be experiencing depression.  

“Historically, in Black communities, we’ve often pursued other means of addressing our mental well-being, like going to church or praying, for example,” said James, whose father was a Baptist minister. “And so, for me, this idea of seeking mental health care or even being depressed in the first place is not something that was openly discussed in my family or within my group of friends.” 

According to James, one of the reasons mental health is missing from conversations is the stigma attached to it. “In Black communities, especially Black men, we are taught at a young age that we have to be strong... we have to be the protectors.”  

Those experiencing mental health symptoms can feel they are straying from that narrative and, as a result, opening themselves up to being judged by others. In fact, 54 percent of Black respondents to a 2021 BCBSA survey2 reported that individuals with mental health conditions in their communities “are looked down upon.” By contrast, this perception was noticeably less common among white respondents, with 38 percent reporting this view. 

James said a root cause of the stigma can be found in “the historical context of where Black people have come from, from slavery to Jim Crow to racial segregation.” He thinks about the segregation and racial trauma his parents and others experienced growing up in the South and the changes that have taken place over the years. 

“I think that the previous generation, they look at our current experience and say, ‘You’re depressed? Your life is great compared to ours.’ 

“This generational divide doesn't always give us the permission to openly talk about mental health because it isn't always viewed as something that, relative to the challenges of the past, is as poignant.”

Taking a scary but important leap

James said his generation has had to overcome that frame of mind. “We have had to have the strength and the courage to acknowledge that mental health is a real issue in our community and have the vulnerability to talk about it because that is the first step in terms of being able to heal.” He’s found strength in vulnerability rather than seeing vulnerability as antithetical to strength.  

James knew that at the root of his depression was the death of his father. "For a 12-year-old, losing your hero is really difficult, because you don’t really know how to process your emotions.” Looking back, James can now see the childhood trauma he experienced from that loss.  

The first person James talked to about experiencing depression was his mother. Her response was ‘I know.’ His mother’s validation made him feel comfortable about seeking help.  

Afraid about how others would respond if he were to say something in person, he posted an article on social media.  An outpouring of support followed, as well as numerous messages from other Black men who said his story validated their experience.

Finding the right therapist

But when he finally decided to seek professional help James faced more challenges. “It was difficult to find providers who were available, who took my insurance,” he said. Even more difficult was finding providers who understood his cultural identity and how that influenced his mental health. 

James said he feels most comfortable speaking to a Black woman. “I was raised by Black women, and that’s who I feel most vulnerable with.”  

He’s not alone in having a demographic preference. The BCBSA survey found 31 percent of Black respondents said they want a mental health provider who shares their race or ethnicity, and 37 percent want a provider with similar life experiences. Yet, finding clinicians of color can be difficult. In 2021, only 5 percent of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were Black. 

A quest to heal leads to a mission to help others

After about six consultations, James finally found a therapist who was right for him. However, he knows others who weren't so fortunate which is what inspired him to launch Therify, an organization that partners with large companies and matches their employees with licensed therapists who, among other considerations, have similar backgrounds and shared experiences. 

Today, James is proud he put in the work to be a better version of himself. “My path toward vulnerability and publicly acknowledging my mental health is the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It allowed me to enter a journey of healing that wasn't shrouded in embarrassment.”