- MMHAM offers a special opportunity this July for people of all backgrounds to evaluate their cultural identity and take stock of their mental health.
- Race and mental illness are touchy subjects for most of us, and if you’re multi-racial, Black, or Asian American, racial identity can feel like a burden.
- Despite a lack of representation for clients of color (especially women), the fields of mental health care and research are becoming more diverse.
- Researchers of color are using their cultural identities to study and benefit the communities they’re from.
- Instead of ignoring our cultural identities, it may be helpful to celebrate our uniqueness and to remember that despite our differences, we can all support one another better by practicing acceptance.
It’s pretty hard to imagine two topics more stigmatized than race and mental illness. For many of us, both subjects can often feel too complex or touchy to talk about. But the truth is that mental health and race are intertwined, whether we like to think about them that way or not. And this July, Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (MMHAM) is a subtle reminder of that connection—but what if the conversation surrounding race and our mental health didn’t have to be so uncomfortable?
Whatever your personal views on race and mental health are, MMHAM encourages Americans of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and walks of life to simply slow down a little. Despite what our fears and assumptions tell us, it’s actually possible to talk about these uncomfortable subjects with others and with ourselves. Even for those of us who aren’t of racial minorities, our cultural identity might seem naturally intertwined with our emotional wellbeing.
So this July, despite any reservations we might feel, could it be possible to explore our individual connections to race and mental health without worries or feelings of guilt? The answer seems to be (cautiously) yes. But if so, where do we begin?
Mental Illness Is a Universal Issue—It’s Not Limited to Minorities
Race has long been a complex and divisive issue in the U.S., but despite what popular opinions may tell, Americans are actually becoming more comfortable talking about issues of color. And that’s a good thing, considering that our population is on track to become more diverse than ever before in the next 20 years.
The bad news is that we’re in the grips of a mental health crisis, one that’s affecting all Americans: It’s currently estimated that 1 in 5 of us has a mental health disorder. The issue isn’t so much that mental illness occurs—this is normal and everyone’s mental health fluctuates. And while communities and people of color are affected by mental illness, they aren’t always the most susceptible. The real problem, then, that MMHAM seeks to address can be split into two parts:
- Minority communities and black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face extra hurdles when it comes to getting access to mental health resources; one of those barriers is the universal cultural stigma attached to issues of mental illness. BIPOC also may find themselves burdened by the additional weight of micro-aggressions and discrimination in all major aspects of their lives.
- Our long-standing biases and misconceptions about mental health resources are hurting us all, regardless of how we racially identify. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic did wonders for normalizing therapy and psychiatric care, it’s estimated that nearly 50% of the 60 million Americans suffering from mental illness go without the care they need.
The Connection Between Mental Health and Our Identities
Few people know more about the close connection between identity and mental health than Dr. Tiffany Haynes (Ph.D.), an associate professor at the University of Arkansas’ College of Public Health. She’s one of many mental health researchers using their unique cultural background to their advantage. Haynes identifies as a black woman with roots in rural Arkansas; she says her unique identity has helped her to “develop innovative and culturally-tailored research,” with much of her work exploring mental health disparities and the specific needs of those in African American communities.
Mental health professionals like Dr. Haynes are important, and they represent a more inclusive future for their profession. Currently, people of color and especially women of color, desperately need representation in clinical and research settings.
It seems like having a positive sense of your racial identity can protect against the development of psychiatric disorders for some people. But for others, especially those of African or Asian descent, self-perceptions of race may be a risk factor for mental illness. And those of two or more races are actually at an increased risk for mental illness than other groups, with 25% of mixed-race individuals reporting a mental illness of some kind.
Dr. Haynes theorizes that this may be because bi-racial and multi-racial people “often experience racial invalidation,” and are subject to discrimination from both the public and from their own families. The poor treatment of those from mixed-race backgrounds is an indication of how our cultural identities can be helpful to certain groups and a hindrance to others.
MMHAM Is About Self-Care, Respect and Support
MMHAM might conjure up racial anxiety for some of us, and those who identify as white might feel like they have nothing to contribute. The truth is that we can all play an active and helpful role, even after MMHAM ends. Some of the best ways to become an ally for those around you include:
- Educating yourself and learning to listen. According to Dr. Haynes, one of the best ways to support BIPOC is “to learn to listen without judgment and without trying to solve the issue.”
- Respecting the viewpoints of those with different identities or cultural ties, even if you don’t agree with them. “Rather than spending time trying to offer other perspectives that counter their experience, respond with compassion and validate their feelings about the situation,” says Dr. Haynes.
- Asking direct, helpful questions. Dr. Haynes points out that asking, “How can I support you right now?” is more useful than simply asking how someone is doing.
For people of color, MMHAM is an important time to take inventory of their mental health. Here are a few professional tips for tapping into yours:
- Conduct a mental, emotional, and spiritual check-in. Dr. Haynes notes that it can be beneficial to “take a step back and acknowledge the stress that we are under and check in with our mind, body, and spirit to see how we are feeling.”
- Be the change. Although it can be incredibly discouraging to experience racism, Dr. Haynes advocates for people of color to “look for ways to be part of the solution.” Consider how you can advocate for change, whether it’s by prioritizing your own mental health or becoming more conscious of the needs of others.
- Unplug from news and social media apps. Doing so can help reduce stress, especially when topics of racial tension are sensationalized. Dr. Haynes says to “give yourself permission to disconnect from social media and the news especially.”
- Build a support system. “You’re not alone,” says Dr. Haynes. She recommends that people of color find their tribe—“the people who can provide support when you are feeling stressed.”
Rather than ignoring race as part of our identity, Dr. Haynes has noted the ways in which traditions and strong cultural ties can actually be useful for both treating mental illness and in research settings. She notes that as researchers and clinicians of color “build a more diverse mental health workforce, we are better able to reach and care for individuals who have not historically been represented in the mental health system.”
When we stop to fully consider MMHAM’s purpose and potential impact, it seems to have the ability to help us celebrate our differences, rather than view them as harmful or divisive. This might seem overly simplistic, but at a time when 67% of Americans believe that the current state of race relations in our country is bad, maybe it’s not such a silly idea. Dr. Haynes’ last bit of advice is to “do things that bring you joy every day!” Hopefully, one of those things can be embracing our identity.
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