Black Mental Health Discussed at Henson Conference

Until recently, African Americans generally didn’t address mental health challenges, largely because of the stigma that doing so makes a person mentally and emotionally weak, but that has changed within the past decade.

Presently, Blacks are coming to grips with the challenges of being mentally healthy in a society that tends to be covertly racist. However, African Americans are proactively dealing with such challenges.

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation — started by famed actress and D.C. native Taraji P. Henson last fall in honor of her father, who suffered psychologically after his service in the Vietnam War — took the challenge head-on last weekend with its three-day “Can We Talk?” conference and benefit dinner at the Grand Hyatt Washington in Northwest.

“Thank you for coming out to learn about this important cause,” Henson said Saturday to about 300 attendees. “We as a people need to talk about this. We have had to endure over 400 years of aggression and other issues and we are all suffering.”

The conference consisted of a gala dinner and workshops on a wide range of topics dealing with Blacks and mental health challenges.

“The Black community continues to be met with hurdles linked to seeking a therapist, having funds to pay for treatment and dealing with the stigma that comes with receiving mental health care,” said Jan Desper Peters, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, Inc., which played a prominent role at the conference. “Suicide rates have doubled among Black children and adolescents in the past two decades, confirming that seeking professional help or admitting to suicidal thoughts continue to instill guilt and shame in our people.”

Studies on mental health and African Americans have consistently shown that Blacks are disproportionately more likely to suffer from mental health issues than white Americans, and the symptoms tend to be more severe, yet only 33.6 percent of Blacks with depression seek professional help. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, Blacks had experienced mental health issues 20 percent more than Whites but were 50 percent less likely to seek assistance.

The conference’s “It Takes a Village” workshop featured mental health professionals talking about addressing and dealing with the stigma as a people.

Dr. Altha Stewart, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said the approach to addressing mental health for Blacks and whites isn’t uniform.

“We [as a people] are unique,” Stewart said. “We have specific needs because we are different. Because of that difference, it is essential that we have a mode of treatment that works for us.”

Stewart said that Blacks tend to be more communal “and not individualistic” in their approach to life.

Dr. Patricia Newton, CEO and medical director of Black Psychiatrists of America, also stressed the benefits of respecting elders.

“We as Blacks need to go back to our African roots and be kinder and gentler to each other,” Newton said.

Picking up on the theme of the workshop, Dr. Theopia Jackson, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, said “the village is hurting because the mental health system in this country wasn’t designed for us.”

“It has to be OK to talk about the trauma, but we have been talking the wrong language,” Jackson said. “We as a people were enslaved, not slaves and we have to work hard to correct the myth of Black inferiority and white superiority.”

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