glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

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

Think about it, 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.

Approximately 10 percent of US homicides are committed by untreated severely mentally ill people. Chances that a perpetrator of a mass shooting displayed signs of mental illness prior to the crime are 1 in 2.

In light of the recent tragedy in Washington, DC, where a dozen people lost their lives as an African American gunman blazed through their workplace; once again, mental illness and guns are at the top of conversations everywhere. Is there anything that can be done by the field of mental health to reduce the rare incidence of murders by people with serious mental illness?

Looking at the past 30-plus years of spree- and mass-shootings, nearly two-thirds of the 67 incidents – 65.7 percent – were at the hands of a white person. Only one was committed by a female. It is indisputable: white men are most likely to commit such acts, though not exclusively. The 67 incidents have seen over a thousand people killed or wounded.

Yet,in what seems to be a growing trend of African American men becoming, more and more, the prepretators of these incidents.

Nearly every mass shooting incident in the last twenty years, and multiple other instances of suicide and isolated shootings all share one thing in common, and its not the weapons used.

The overwhelming evidence points to the signal largest common factor in all of these incidents is the fact that all of the perpetrators were sufffering from some form of mental illness, or had been at some point in the immediate past before they committed their crimes.

Why was no one able to get him into treatment? A leading psychologist says our fear and misunderstanding of mental illness prevents us from stepping in before tragedies occur.

I believe that it is way past time for us to truly look, with commitment, at the state of mental health care in this country. Especially regarding emotional and mental illness, there are so many people who are unable to seek treatment because they may be unable to navigate the system in order to receive social services or they just don’t have enough money to pay for treatment if they fall into middle class incomes because insurance rarely covers mental issues effectively. It must be remembered also that in the 1970’s the doors to the mental hospitals were closed to the indigent and those people flooded the streets with nowhere to live, and no place to recive help. Not to mention that we, as a society turn a blind eye.

One of the greatest, and most undertreated, threats affecting Americans today is Mental Illness. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by mental, neurological or behavioral problems at any time.

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.

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.

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 and paradoxes in our knowledge of the mental health status of the African American population.

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. I was just at one last week with a friend and his wife in support of their daughter.

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.

African American communities across the United States are more culturally diverse now that any other time in history with increasing numbers of immigrants from African nations, the Caribbean, Central America and other countries. To ensure African American communities have access to adequate and affordable care, a better understanding of the complex role that cultural backgrounds and diverse experiences play in mental disorders in these communities is vital.

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.

On the surface, the deep threat this issue poses to African American 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 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

In fairness, let me be clear, this doesn’t say severe mental illness causes violence.

Here’s a quick analogy: Smokers are more likely to get pancreatitis than nonsmokers. This implies smoking causes pancreatitis, but it’s really that smokers drink more alcohol, which causes pancreatitis. In other words, some other aspect of life might be a bigger factor than mental illness in whether those suffering from it engage in violence.

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

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.

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