The Stats on Untreated Mental Health in African American Men

Mental health tends to be a taboo topic among men. Given a choice, most would rather not talk about it. Unfortunately, this is often more true for African American men, who experience mental health problems at about the same rate as others but continue to be underrecognized and undertreated in the recovery sphere. While the same factors that make a lot of men treatment-averse likely play a role, cultural norms and experiences unique to African Americans may also account for this disparity. In some communities, mental health isn’t always prioritized or acknowledged, and many Black men feel expected to endure problems like anxiety or depression rather than confront them.

At Choice House, we know the impact that untreated mental illness can have on individuals and their families. The stigma surrounding these issues is hard for anyone to overcome, but additional barriers such as cost, access to care and discrimination can make it even more challenging for African American men to get the help they need. We’re taking a closer look at the startling mental health stats among Black men and how we can develop culturally competent treatments that account for these realities, with the goal of improving the availability and quality of treatment across the board.

Less than 50 percent of all Americans with a mental health disorder get treatment…

But that rate is even lower for Black men. In the United States, the percentage of African Americans receiving mental health services like medication or therapy is half that of Whites. And when they do get help for a mental health problem, the quality of care is often lower. Compared to others, Black men are less likely to be offered evidence-based treatments and are more likely to encounter communication difficulties with their providers. One study found that physicians are 23 percent more verbally dominant toward African Americans and 33 percent less likely to engage in patient-centered dialogue. This undermines the trust needed to build a positive relationship and results in less information, less support and less effective care overall, adversely affecting treatment outcomes.

The poor quality of mental health treatment offered to African Americans can have far-reaching effects that extend beyond the individual. When mental illness goes untreated, it contributes to higher rates of substance abuse, incarceration, suicide and homelessness, which in turn negatively impact one’s state of mind. Black men are particularly vulnerable to this cycle as they’re more likely to encounter these and other challenges in their daily lives. The connection between mental wellness and one’s social, economic and physical well-being further underscores the importance of ensuring effective treatment options are available to African Americans, who bear the brunt of an inadequate health care system.

African American men are four times more likely to commit suicide than African American women…

And it is the second leading cause of death among African Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. While the suicide rate is lower in Black populations compared to non-Hispanic Whites, it has continued to climb in recent years. In some areas, suicides among African Americans have increased as much as 94 percent, taking the lives of more young men than ever before. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anxiety and depression are up in Black communities since the onset of COVID-19, which may contribute to this alarming trend, but experts believe that social unrest, racial violence and increased awareness of issues like police brutality have also played a role, along with less access to mental health services during the pandemic.

There’s no single explanation for the increase in suicide among African Americans, but these developments have challenged old assumptions. For years, experts believed they knew who was most at risk — adolescents, males and, in terms of racial demographics, Whites and Native Americans. A closer look at recent data contradicts this idea, prompting researchers to ask why. How did this happen? What are the risk factors? What are the protective factors? But because African Americans are woefully underrepresented in studies concerning mental health and suicide, we’re still a ways off from finding the answers to these questions.

In the meantime, what we can do is destigmatize mental illness and reach out to those who are struggling, letting them know that they’re not alone. Black men are often taught to “suck it up” and power through difficult emotions, but that mindset isn’t healthy for anyone. By simply changing the way we approach the topics of mental health and suicide, we can show our loved ones that it’s okay to open up and ask for support. On a broader level, we need to increase access to affordable treatment options, improve community outreach and address the lack of diversity among health care professionals to make a lasting difference.

African American adults are more likely to report feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness than White adults…

And are 20 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress as a result. Combined with the rising suicide rates in Black communities, these statistics point to an emerging mental health crisis. Although depression is about as prevalent in African Americans as it is in other groups, there are still some significant differences to consider in the diagnosis, treatment and management of mental illness in Black populations.

African Americans, particularly men, face unique societal pressures that others don’t experience. This includes increased exposure to racism, violence and discrimination. While we’ve made great strides in the last 50 years, many Black individuals continue to be perceived or treated as “less than” because of their skin color, which can intensify feelings of depression and be detrimental to their mental or emotional health. In fact, numerous studies show the adverse physical and psychological effects of racism, which has been found to be predictive of PTSD-like symptoms and poorer health outcomes.

Many African Americans also report a greater stigma associated with mental illness and help-seeking behavior, along with higher levels of mistrust in medical professionals. These attitudes are particularly prevalent among men, representing a significant barrier to the treatment of mental health or substance use disorders. While some are more willing to work with Black physicians, who can provide effective, appropriate and culturally sensitive care to African American patients, racially diverse providers comprise a very small percentage of the mental and behavioral health workforce.

Where do we go from here?

These concerns may help to explain why mental health symptoms tend to be more chronic, severe and persistent in Black individuals. The prevailing stigma surrounding mental illness in African American communities, along with an aversion to treatment among many Black men and a lack of access to care, also means that symptoms have more time to build and worsen. Due to these and other factors, it’s crucial that we work together to change our attitudes on mental illness and bring greater awareness to the issues affecting African Americans.

While increased education and understanding are the first steps to changing the status quo, bridging the gap to eliminate racial inequalities in the mental health system will require change on a deeper level. This includes encouraging providers to diversify the workforce, prioritizing culturally competent care that resonates with people of different backgrounds, and improving treatment access to bring hope and healing to communities that have been overlooked.

Attaining mental wellness is key to living a happy and healthy life, but this is easier said than done for a lot of Black men. The stigma of mental illness, less access to treatment and a health care system that isn’t always equipped to address issues relevant to them can make it hard for African Americans to get the help they need when dealing with symptoms of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders. Left untreated, these concerns will continue to impact almost every other aspect of life and may lead to other problems such as substance abuse or thoughts of suicide.

Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, is a treatment center for men dedicated to eliminating disparities in mental health care affecting Black communities. We provide a number of treatment options designed to help clients overcome their challenges and find the resources they need to achieve lasting recovery. To learn more about our programs and how they can help, reach out by calling us today at 303-578-4976.

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