Therapists say African Americans are increasingly seeking help for mental illness

When Jinneh Dyson was 17 and a doctor prescribed medication to treat depression that had plagued her since the death of her mother three years earlier, her friends and family persuaded her not to take it.

“They said: ‘That’s going to make you crazy. You’ve just got to pray and have faith,’ ” recalled Dyson, who is African American and the daughter of a Baptist minister. “They said, ‘That’s the way of the white man, poisoning you.’ ”

Four years later, Dyson was a student at the University of Texas at Austin and still battling debilitating depression. A friend, who was biracial, urged her to seek counseling.
“I said, ‘Girl, we don’t do that . . . that’s your white side,’ ” said Dyson, now 31. But she eventually agreed to meet with the university’s only black counselor. Her treatment was so transformative that she now splits her time working as a senior manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington and as a life coach and motivational speaker on mental health and other issues in Houston.

Many people, regardless of race, have a hard time talking about mental illness. But for many African Americans, the topic has carried particularly negative connotations — to the point where it’s easier to talk about drug or alcohol addiction than depression or anxiety. In 2008, whites received mental health treatment or counseling at nearly twice the rate of blacks, and whites received prescription medication for mental health-related issues at more than twice the rate of blacks, according to the 2010 National Healthcare Disparities Report.

But African Americans’ acceptance of therapy has been rising in the past decade, providers say, particularly among the young and those with more education and in those urban areas with large black populations.

There have been no large-scale studies about the recent shift, but providers interviewed said they have seen it in their work and in their communities.

“I’ve seen an increasing number of African Americans who feel increasingly less stigmatized about coming in and seeking therapy and who also recognize the healing power of therapy,” said Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist in private practice and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, adding that in the past 10 years he has seen a 20 to 25 percent rise in African Americans seeking therapy.

“The attitudes have changed,” said Lisa Whitten, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY College at Old Westbury in New York, noting that more black students are studying psychology and “taking that message home . . . that this is something a broad range of people do and it doesn’t mean you’re disintegrating.”

But change comes slowly.

“There’s some shame and embarrassment,” said Damian Waters, a marriage and family therapist whose clients at his practice in Upper Marlboro are predominantly African American. “You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”

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Original article – Washington Post – July 9, 2013

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