Happy Black History Month, a month when we honor Black Americans and celebrate Black achievements, history, and joy.

In the world of mental health, it’s important to take this month not only to recognize the important contributions that Black Americans have made to the field of psychology and mental well-being but also to hold space for serious conversations about the systemic racism and dehumanization that Black people have faced in mental health systems and beyond.

As mental health professionals, we’re responsible for working toward building a mentally healthier world. Addressing the injustice and suffering that have been inflicted upon Black Americans is an essential part of supporting global mental health. This is perhaps especially true for those of us who work in workplace mental health, where economic, employment, and health factors converge.

Today, we’ll be talking about Black mental health, including taking a deep dive into statistics, giving tips for employers, and providing further resources.

Facts about Black Mental Health

First, let’s take a look at some facts and statistics about mental health issues within our Black communities.

Rates of mental illness in Black populations

Some surveys have found that Black people in the U.S. have an equal or lower rate of reported mental illness than their white counterparts.

But experts say that these numbers are incorrect, and are explained in part by undercounting due to a rightful mistrust of the medical system that many Black people feel. Throughout history, Black Americans have been far more likely to be exploited by the medical system – so they may understandably be less likely to report mental health symptoms.

Other measures of Black mental health have found starkly different results; for example, in one survey, Black adults were almost twice as likely as white adults to report extreme emotional distress, like feeling that “everything is a struggle” or experiencing feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Black youth are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die by suicide.

It’s clear that we need to take Black mental health seriously.

Help-seeking behavior

Despite experiencing symptoms of mental illness at around the same rate as whites, Black Americans are far less likely to receive support. Over 50% of Black people with a serious mental illness, and over 90% of those with substance use disorder, did not receive the treatment they required.

This disparity is largely due to the barriers to treatment, which we’ll describe below. Many Black people understandably have a mistrust of the U.S. medical system after having been exploited by the U.S. government. In addition, there are sometimes factors of stigma against mental health problems that exist within the Black community that can prevent someone from seeking support.

Black people are also much more likely to visit the emergency room for mental health-related issues – but are less likely than whites to be admitted to the hospital for continuing treatment after their visit.

Barriers to treatment: Racism within the mental health system

Deep systemic racism exists within every American institution, including the mental healthcare system. This creates many barriers to adequate mental health treatment for Black people in this country and explains why Black people receive mental health support at lower rates.

For example, there is a severe lack of representation of Black mental health providers. According to the Association of Black Psychologists, only 4% of psychologists and 2% of psychiatrists identify as Black. This leads to bias, mistrust, exploitation, and misunderstandings within mental health systems for Black clients.

Black individuals are also much more likely to be misdiagnosed with more severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia, even when they’re showing clear signs of depression. They’re also underdiagnosed and are not offered evidence-based treatment even when displaying symptoms that are identical to their white counterparts. This has been going on for decades and continues to happen today.

The United States also has a long history of punishing and incarcerating all people with mental illness, but especially those who are Black. This is especially true for Black individuals who live with substance use disorder. It creates an understandable barrier to treatment when you can’t trust that systems will help you rather than punish you for your suffering.

The impacts of racism on mental health

Systemic racism doesn’t only prevent mental health treatment access; it also impacts mental health itself. Racism, both interpersonal and institutional, is traumatic. Trauma is the natural emotional reaction humans have to something that is beyond our ability to cope and can cause symptoms like hypervigilance and somatic symptoms (headaches, etc.). Our society inflicts the trauma of racism onto Black Americans daily, which can understandably affect their mental health.

A 2021 study found that dealing with structural racism led to structural changes in Black women’s brains. The study’s authors suggested that these brain changes could lead to a heightened vulnerability to health conditions including dementia.

Institutional racism has also led to disproportionate rates of poverty for Black Americans. Research shows that Black people living below the poverty line are far more likely to experience mental illness.

Why this matters for employers, and what we can do

If your employees’ mental health matters to you, then your Black employees’ mental health needs to matter to you, too. As an employer or manager, it’s essential to understand that Black employees face unique risk factors and barriers that can contribute to mental health problems in different ways. Their experiences are valid and need to be listened to and honored.

Here are some things you can do to support and protect your Black employees’ mental health:

  • Listen. When a Black employee tells you about racism or microaggressions they’re facing within the workplace, listen with an open mind. Don’t be defensive, and believe them when they tell you about what’s happening.
  • Be transparent about pay. This can help expose any payment disparities that may exist within your company and help correct racial inequality. These disparities can negatively affect Black mental health.
  • Address your implicit biases. Everyone has biases, and non-Black people have historically shown biases against the Black community. Addressing that these implicit biases can exist in you is the first step to changing them and being a better manager.
  • Ask for feedback. Be open to and encouraging of feedback from Black employees. Ask them to call you out when you’ve made a mistake, and take ownership.
  • Ensure access to culturally competent counseling. Ensure that the workplace mental health or EAP that you choose has diverse and culturally competent counselors available.
  • Provide accommodations. For employees of all races who face mental health symptoms, provide accommodations like time off or an adjusted schedule.
  • Create Employee Resource Groups or mentorship programs. These programs can help connect Black employees with others who share their identity and create safe spaces within your organization.
  • Commit to being an anti-racist organization. Don’t make empty statements. Commit to your DEI efforts, and understand that unlearning racism and creating equity is a lifelong process. Working for an anti-racist organization can decrease the mental toll on Black employees.

Further resources for Black mental health

Here are further resources to learn more about Black mental health and access treatment.

  • The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, a national institution dedicated to the healing, wellness, and liberation of Black communities.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s Sharing Hope, a program to increase mental health awareness within Black communities.
  • Mental Health America’s resource to learn about Black pioneers in the field of mental health.
  • The Black Mental Health Alliance, an organization that provides training and referral opportunities to advocate for culturally effective mental health care for the Black community.
  • The Boris Lawrence Henderson Foundation, a Black mental health advocacy group that connects people to culturally competent therapists and offers a scholarship fund for Black people who want to work in mental health.
  • The Loveland Foundation, a fund that helps Black women and girls access therapy and other healing opportunities.
  • Therapy for Black Men, which works to break the stigma of mental health care for Black men and provides access to multiculturally competent therapists.

Happy Black History Month!


To Your Wellbeing,

The MINES Team