For African-Americans, many hurdles in seeking mental health care

  • Article by: ASHLEY GRIFFIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2013 - 11:37 PM

The problem is on the agenda of a conference on African-American health issues Friday and Saturday at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

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Daniel Abdul, at home in Eden Prairie with wife Sarah and daughter Isabella, returned from military service suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but when he tried to tell family members that he had a mental illness, they had difficulty accepting it.

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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Some days are a battle for Daniel Abdul.

While serving as a U.S. Army flight medic, he saw his dreams of becoming a pilot derailed by a near-fatal car accident. His physical injuries healed, but his anger didn’t. It wasn’t until he threw a remote control at one of his sisters in a fit of rage that he sought treatment and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.

But the hardest day came when he tried to tell perplexed family members. “They couldn’t connect my behavior to the disease,” he said. One relative told him: “You are not crazy, you need to have faith.”

Abdul’s frustration is not unusual, according to people who have studied mental health in the black community. Only about 30 percent of African-Americans who have been diagnosed with a mental illness seek counseling, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and only one in three who need psychiatric care receive it.

Factors such as poverty, neighborhood violence and higher rates of unemployment may place African-Americans at higher risk for mental illness, researchers have found.

Yet the stigma of mental illness and a long history of mistrust for the medical establishment can combine to create a community ethic of resilience, said Samuel Simmons Jr., a Minneapolis consultant.

“We pride ourselves in not having to go see a psychologist,” Simmons said. “If I am [considered] the people who are the worst of the worst, the last thing I am going to admit [is] that something is wrong with me.”

Today, that may be changing. Just this month President Obama called for a broader conversation about mental illness.

“We whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions,” Obama said at a White House news conference. “There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love.”

In an effort to overcome the stigma, Simmons has placed mental illness on the agenda of Community Empowerment, a conference on African-American health issues Friday and Saturday at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

The conference will aim to de-stigmatize mental illness by addressing some of the everyday and historical traumas, including slavery and segregation, faced by African-Americans. “The community is like an individual suffering from post-traumatic stress,” Simmons said.

Other mental health professionals are trying similar strategies. “What people really want is to have a sense of wellness — to feel like they can handle the normal stresses of life,” said Cynthia Fashaw, who directs the children’s program and multicultural outreach for the the National Alliance for Mental Illness-Minnesota.

Fashaw tries to give clients basic information about what mental illness may look like, the doctors involved and where a patient can get started.

Some studies have shown that instead of seeking care from professionals, African-Americans sometimes turn to someone they know — often the church.

At Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis, Bishop Richard Howell Jr. offers an array of counseling — a departure from some older traditional churches.

“It is a hush-hush topic,” Howell said, but “the church has wised up now — we understand that not all things are lunatic or demonic.”

Given the barriers, it’s important for therapists to show cultural sensitivity, said Thad Wilderson of Thad Wilderson & Associates in St. Paul.

“Right now there aren’t many mental health clinics directed especially at different cultural groups, so ... people are leery about the services and the information they share.”

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