Mental Health Stigmas are Hurting Minorities Most

Mental Health Stigmas are Hurting Minorities Most

Four Myths We Need to Debunk Right Now

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

A sad spike in recent high-profile suicides has made mental health part of our everyday conversation, but this is a crisis that has been escalating for decades. Although largely seen as a “white problem,” mental health struggles disproportionately affect minorities, and many who suffer don’t get the treatment they need.

Part of the problem stems from cultural stigmas that make living with mental illness taboo. One in six adults suffer from depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders, but not everyone suffers equally. African Americans, for example, are 10 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress, while Latinos are 40 percent more likely, and American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 70 percent more likely. Making matters worse, these populations are only half as likely to receive treatment or counseling.

Culturally ingrained views of mental illness are partly to blame. Only 30 percent of African Americans believe mental illness is a legitimate health issue, and 60 percent mistakenly see depression as a personal weakness. The widespread notion that even mild depression or anxiety makes someone “crazy” leaves many reluctant to discuss their mental health struggles, even among family. And while words like depression and anxiety do not even exist in certain American Indian languages, the suicide rate for American Indians and Alaskan Natives between the ages of 15 and 24 is two to three times higher than the national rate.

It’s time we all work together to change the perceptions of mental illness. If you or someone you care about suffers in silence, here are the top four myth-busting facts that help explain why seeking the right treatment is so important.

Myth 1: Mental illness isn’t really an illness.

Fact: Mental illness can be diagnosed and treated, just like hypertension or a range of other conditions. But misperceptions about mental illness cause many to question a diagnosis, which is basically like asking a friend if they’ve tried just not getting high blood pressure in the first place. Seeing mental illness as a real, treatable illness is a first step in convincing more people to seek care.

Myth 2: Mental illness does not have physical symptoms.

Fact: Mental illness can cause physical health problems. And because symptoms like headaches and digestive trouble are easier to talk about than the depression or anxiety that may be causing them, we often don’t get to the root of the problem, and people continue to suffer as a result. If nagging health issues are affecting your quality of life, look at the red flags for underlying mental illness, and share you concerns with your provider.

Myth 3: Mental illness is rare.

Fact: Roughly 19 million Americans have clinical depression, and 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders – or almost one in five of the population over 18. The truth is mental illness is extremely common, and the vast majority of cases can be treated, but only when you seek help. Understanding that mental illness is a mainstream problem for all races and ethnicities is critical to changing cultural perceptions around mental health.

Myth 4: There’s only one kind of provider.  

Fact: Mental health can be delicate and requires a skilled provider who understands not only the science but the cultural viewpoint of the patient. A Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, also known as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, can do many of the same things as a psychiatrist, including diagnosing mental illness, prescribing medication and even serving as a therapist. Because many nurse practitioners work in diverse communities and are trained to provide more comprehensive, whole-patient care, they provide a healthy option for patients seeking accessible care, especially when mental health is a concern. The most important thing is to find a provider who understands your concerns and your point of view.

Left untreated, mental illness can be dangerous and devastating. Despite the risks, many people don’t recognize the symptoms or simply ignore them out of fear of being considered weak or irrational, or because they don’t know who to turn to for help. It’s time that we all work together to change these realities, especially for minorities. July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, but everyday needs to shine a spotlight on mental illness. Every suicide is one too many. Every person living in silence with mental illness is unnecessarily suffering. Let’s make getting treated for mental illness as natural as getting treated for high blood pressure. Nurse practitioners and other skilled providers can help.

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