The lack of access to medical and mental health services leads to mental health disparities that disproportionately impact Black Americans.

6.5 million or 21.6% of Black Americans reported having a mental illness. Of the 6.5 million Black Americans, 1.2 million or 23% reported having a serious mental illness, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 

Dr. Abhishek Allam is a resident of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences. Allam is also a licensed physician at Sunshine Behavioral Health in San Juan Capistrano, California.

“Lack of insurance and medical access leads to delayed treatment or many going untreated with serious mental illness in the African American community,” said Allam.

In 2018, 58.2% of African Americans ages 18-25 and 50.1% of African Americans ages 26-49 with a serious mental illness did not receive any form of treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2019, 10.1% of African Americans in comparison to 6.3% of white Americans were uninsured, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Chief Nursing Officer Willa Hardamon works at Old Vineyard Behavioral Health Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Hardamon has 30 years of nursing experience in the mental and behavioral health industry.

“African Americans are more likely to not receive treatment for a serious mental illness,” said Hardamon. “This leads to substance use disorders in African Americans who attempt to self-treat with drugs and other substances.” 

According to a report by the CDC, 90% of Black Americans over the age of 12 with a substance use disorder went untreated.

Stigmas associated with mental illness cause Black Americans to not get the mental health treatment they need.

“Mental health stigmas and lack of public awareness influence many Black Americans to not seek professional treatment,” said Hardamon. “Shame and embarrassment also results in the denial of mental illness for some Black Americans.”

According to a report in the National Library of Medicine, 63% of African Americans said depression is a sign of personal weakness.

“Growing up in India, I saw prominent members of society talk about mental health and greatly help break some of the stigmas in India,” said Allam. “In the same way, I think prominent figures in the Black community speaking out and promoting mental health can be one way to break current stigmas.”

Outreach coordinator Eric Henckel connects community members to Sunshine Behavioral Health. Henckel also promotes resources such as a guide that discusses mental health issues affecting the Black community. 

“By sharing this resource and others, we can help start a conversation about how racism and discrimination affect the mental health of African Americans,” said Henckel. “Education and outreach can help reduce the shame and stigma associated with mental illness and mental health treatment in the African American community.”

Mental health professionals are taking steps to decrease the amount of mental health disparities that impact Black Americans.

Allam said Sunshine Behavioral Health is actively working to eliminate mental health issues that the Black community faces.

“Sunshine Behavioral Health is spreading awareness through well-researched guides, free nonprofit addiction directories, community presentations and partnerships with local organizations,” said Allam. “We also provide scholarships and payment plans for substance abuse treatment to ensure people of all incomes can access the best available options with us or another program.”

Hardamon said Old Vineyard Behavioral Health Services partnered with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention to positively impact communities and change the conversation.

“There needs to be more outreach by mental health providers to the Black community,” said Hardamon. “Educating the Black community about mental health and affordable treatment options is a step in the right direction.”