Mental Illness in the Black Community is No Joke

In Think Healthy by Domonique HamiltonLeave a Comment

Photo by pjwoohoo via Flickr


Recently two-time NBA championship winner Lamar Odom was found unconscious in a Las Vegas brothel. He was rushed to a hospital where he slipped into a coma. Drug tests later revealed Odom had traces of cocaine and multiple doses of a herbal sexual enhancement drug in his system.

Media outlets broke the story as quickly as possible, many choosing to focus on Odom’s association with the Kardashian clan as opposed to his critical condition.

The insensitivity towards his situation goes deeper than the selective representation of the media and can be attributed to the African American attitude towards a factor that drives many to substance abuse: mental illness.

Odom has become somewhat of a joke within the Black community. However, his issues with having had a turbulent childhood and drug addict father are nothing to joke about. His wife, Khloe, has stated on camera that “[Lamar] is a very depressed person, which is sad but understandable for everything he’s been through in his life.”

Depression is a serious type of mental illness that many people, including Odom, suffer from on a daily basis. Those who do often turn to substances like drugs and alcohol to self medicate, sometimes lapsing into substance abuse.

Are they to blame for doing so when their illnesses are not viewed as “real” in their communities?

Within the Black community certain mental illnesses, like depression, aren’t taken very seriously yet doing so could mean a giant shift in the amount of substance abusers within our community.

What is mental illness? The National Alliance on Mental Health defines a mental illness as “a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.” They have conducted research that reports that approximately 43.7 million people experience mental illness annually.

African Americans, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

Mental illness can negatively affect a person’s academic, professional, and social lives. They include an array of different disorders ranging from psychotic disorders like schizophrenia to mood disorders like depression. A great deal can be diagnosed and treated rather easily but continue to go untreated within the Black community.

There are many reasons why African Americans with mental illnesses do not receive the help they need.

In 1996, Mental Health America constructed a survey on the African American attitude towards clinical depression which “ explored the barriers preventing Americans seeking treatment and gauged overall knowledge of and attitudes toward depression.” They found that 63% of African Americans saw depression as a “personal weakness,” while 31% felt it was a “health problem.” The survey also revealed that African Americans felt that depression was a normal aspect of life, either due to aging, giving birth, or death of a spouse.

When it came to why many African Americans don’t seek treatment, Mental Health America found that 40% were in denial, 38% were too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they needed help, and 17% did not harbor enough knowledge on the subject to understand what the issue was.

Odom’s battle with mental illness is not a solitary one. There are many like him, probably within our own families, who need our support. Instead of making fun of individuals with mental illnesses or regarding their conditions as “fake”  we should educate ourselves and be open-minded because it can happen to any of us.

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