glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

*Recently, we all mourned, and honored, the passing and legacy of Don Cornelius.

After his death, all of us evoked fond memories and appreciation for the role his television Soul Train played in showcasing, and introducing to America, some its’ greatest musical talent. He was a cultural icon, whose contributions helped shape our sense of self-pride and self-love.

Unfortunately, there’s not much talk about what his death brought front and center: the fact that he died as a result of suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

His death underscores the growing problem of depression and suicide among our elderly population. And further still the deafening silence of mental illness in the African American community.

It is time we began to change how we deal with mental illness in our community.

Think about it, that means when you walk down the street, at least one out of every four or five people you pass is suffering form some form of mental illness.

I believe that it is way past time for us to look at the state of mental health care in this country.

In keeping with the prevalence of health disparities and inequities in practically every other area of health, the African American community suffers disproportionately from both mental health and mental health treatment.

According to a report published in the Journal of Black Psychology, “Suicide was the 16th-leading cause of death” among African Americans and the “third-leading cause of death among African American people aged 15 to 19 years, fourth among those aged 20 to 29 years, and eighth among those aged 30 to 39.” Yet somehow, there is still this dangerous collective misunderstanding that “black people don’t commit suicide.”

Suicide rarely just happens.. There are warning signs!

The stigma attached to mental-health awareness is destructive. Those who need help feel unable to ask for it, and those married to the “black people don’t” concept fail to see the signs in those close to them. Black people do, and until we begin the conversation that addresses why black people do and how to prevent it, our news stories will be filled with more tragedies such as these.

In any given year 26 percent of American adults suffer from mental disorders.

One in four patients visiting a health service has at least one mental, neurological or behavioral disorder, but most of these disorders are neither diagnosed nor treated.

African Americans account for only 2% of psychiatrists, 2% of psychologists, and 4% of social workers in the United States. So the answer can’t lie with the

Mental illnesses affect, and are affected by, chronic conditions such as cancer, heart and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. Untreated, they bring about unhealthy behavior, non-compliance with prescribed medical regimens, diminished immune functioning, and poor prognosis.

Compounding this disparity in mental health is the existence of a pervasive stigma that is held widely in the African American community: “they might think I’m crazy”!

The stigma that engulfs African Americans on the issue of mental illness has its’ origins deep in the annals of slave history in America.

One scientific report went so far as to deliberately falsify the black insanity rates from the 1840 U.S. census to show that the further North blacks lived, the higher their rates of lunacy strong evidence, of course, that freedom drove blacks crazy!

Over 150 years after the 1840 census, there are still important gaps in our knowledge of the mental health status of the African American population.

Youth homicide is becoming a common event, but it raises serious concerns. How should the criminal justice system respond to violent young offenders who take the lives of others? Public discourse focuses on the “depravity” of the acts and of the adolescents involved. The stress is on punishment and retribution. Yet, these children were not “born bad”; they were created, and the social context of their lives is usually ignored.

African Americans are disproportionately exposed to social conditions considered to be important risk factors for physical and mental illness.

African Americans frequently lack a usual source of health care as a focal point for treatment. For many African Americans, the emergency room is generally the source of primary care treatment. As a result, mental health care occurs frequently in emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals. These settings and limited treatment available there, undermine the delivery of high-quality mental health care.

Adaptive traditions have sustained African Americans through long periods of hardship imposed by the larger society. There is a historical tendency to “cope” and “adapt’ through a myriad of mechanisms. Among them are food, smoking; illicit drugs; violence; and sex, just to name a few. For some, it is a total withdrawal from social interactions.

Less than half of African American adults with mental illness seek treatment for mental health problems, and less than one third of their children receive treatment.

The lack in receiving treatment is due in part to the stigma that surrounds mental disorders in the African American community.

Because African Americans often turn to community – family, friends, neighbors, community groups and religious leaders – for help, the opportunity exists for community health services to collaborate with local churches and community groups to provide mental health care and education to families and individuals.

According to Reuters, because fathers are experiencing increased levels of depression due to continuous wars and economic downturn, the children of these depressed fathers find themselves internalizing some aspects of depression such as acting out and fighting.

On the surface, the deep threat this issue poses to African American overall health may not be apparent. However, mental illnesses affect, and are affected by, chronic conditions such as cancer, heart and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.   Untreated, they bring about unhealthy behavior, non-compliance with prescribed medical regimens, diminished immune functioning, and poor prognosis.

If this major public health issue is to be addressed effectively, particularly in the African American community, several things have to take place:

l  More aggressive efforts in addressing Health Disparities and Inequities as a community

l  Educate and involve Religious leaders in directing seekers of prayer to Mental Health Services

l  Make mental health a part of dialogue in primary care settings

l  Increase the availability of African American Mental Heath Providers

l  Encourage compliance and continuation of treatment by family and friends

l  Let elected official and policy makers know that we expect much more from them

Remember, I’m not a doctor, I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Information in this column is NOT a substitute for professional care and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease.You should always consult with your health care provider if you have or suspect that you may have a health problem.

Glenn Ellis, author of Which Doctor?, is a syndicated health columnist and radio commentator who lectures around the world on health issues of particular interest to the African-American community. His altest book, Information is the Best Medicine, was released in January, 2012.

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