Addiction is a plague that does not discriminate between rich and poor, Black and white, or male and female. All individuals can succumb to the same fate given circumstances and exposure to drug use and alcohol consumption. What can differ are the triggers, challenges, and barriers to treatment between each of these demographics. Black men in particular face unique challenges.
While slavery and the end of black oppression have been lauded as a significant moment in history, many people of colour still experience racism and discrimination. Other economic disadvantages of Black men and women can include poverty and environmental challenges that can lead to increased exposure to drugs, alcohol abuse and gang warfare. The statistics tell us several things: heroin overdoses have more than doubled recently in the United States among African Americans, African American drug users are three times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and the African American and Latino populations have seen a stark increase in opioid-related deaths between 2015 and 2016.
Mental Health Challenges
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI), African Americans are about half as likely to seek treatment than those of Caucasian descent. Many Black men and women still encounter racial profiling, and finding culturally sensitive mental health practitioners can be a challenge. NAMI also states that African Americans are 20% more likely to experience severe forms of mental illness such as major depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is believed that African Americans may be more likely to turn to friends, a family member, or a spiritual leader when facing mental health issues. A lack of education, awareness, and training among predominately white healthcare professionals can lead to distrust among the African American community. Additionally, they may wait until symptoms become more severe before they reach out for help. However, when a Black male does not want to reach out to a professional for help, and also lacks positive influences in their life, drugs and alcohol can be a way to cope with or escape from their problems. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHA), estimates that roughly 3.8% of African Americans have a dually occurring condition of addiction and mental illness, commonly known as dual diagnosis.
People of colour are believed to be less likely to seek out mental health treatment, and this can lead to substance abuse disorders. They also are more likely to face other social or cultural barriers that trigger addiction. Some of these barriers can include:
- Stigma: Black individuals may attach a stigma of weakness or poor judgment to mental health or addiction challenges. This stigma combined with racial tension may lead individuals to try to pursue sobriety on their own, and it can lead to feelings of guilt and shame which can further deter people from getting help.
- Distrust: The history of racial inequality and discrimination may lead African Americans to develop a distrust for government agencies or healthcare practitioners. This may lead black people to avoid pursuing help, so as to not feel vulnerable around those who may take advantage of them or dismiss their issues.
- Socioeconomic Culture: Those African Americans who have grown up below the federal poverty line may have lived with a culture of gangs, violence, drugs, and other illegal activity. They may have joined gangs, where doing and dealing drugs has led to acceptance they otherwise may have not found. As a result, they may not recognize the harm of their addiction to themselves or others, and they may not pursue treatment at all.
- Male Stoicism: Males in all ethnic groups have historically been discouraged from talking about their feelings. Showing emotion is seen to be a “weakness” only permissible in females. Since Black men face the additional barriers to treatment listed above, they are the group least likely to seek help.
Given the discrimination aimed at Black men, unique considerations need to be considered for those professionals looking to help this community.
Healthcare providers and mental health service providers can receive training to develop better communication and culturally sensitive, non-discriminatory care.
There can be more programs aimed at mental health and addiction literacy. Awareness requires school and church programs, law enforcement, community organizations and much more to get the word out and eliminate the stigma of addiction. Mental health organizations may also consider other platforms like social media to spread their message.
Spirituality is an important aspect of life for many Black people today. Health practitioners should take into consideration the importance of family members, church, and the community when reaching out to the Black community. These communities can not only be a critical source of awareness for many individuals, but also an incredible source of support and accountability in recovery.
Every demographic faces challenges and obstacles they must overcome. Some of these obstacles may be unique to that demographic while others may cross boundaries and be challenges for many individuals. The Black community needs to be given the same courtesy; however, they still face racism and discrimination today. As a result, they may be less likely to seek treatment and more likely to seek help from their community, even if that community does not have the tools or knowledge to help. Healthcare professionals need to understand the challenges, hardships, and stigmas this demographic tangles with, and approach these individuals with unique care and compassion.
Photo: Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) contemplates his mental health in a scene from This Is Us.