Mental Health Awareness Month: Dr. Thema Bryant Explores Mental Health Challenges in the Black Community

Dr. Bryant, the 2023 President of the American Psychological Association, discusses the importance of community, awareness, and accessible mental health care.

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a significant initiative since its inception in 1949. Today, it resonates even more deeply as mental health issues—ranging from stress and anxiety to depression and substance abuse—continue to escalate across the United States. These challenges often hit harder within the Black community, where historical stigmatization and systemic barriers to healthcare stretch back to the days of slavery, when enslaved individuals were unjustly deemed undeserving of mental health care. Even icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who battled severe depression, faced pressures to disregard his mental well-being.

The landscape of mental health in the Black community is complex. Dr. Thema Bryant, the 2023 president of the American Psychological Association, emphasizes that being aware of mental health goes beyond recognizing severe disorders like bipolar or schizophrenia. "We're also talking about what it means to live well,” Dr. Bryant explains. “So to be able to manage your stress, thrive, have self-confidence, and maintain healthy relationships are all crucial aspects of our mental health."

The journey towards better mental health for Black Americans involves dismantling longstanding myths and overcoming specific barriers to acknowledging and addressing mental health issues. For instance, pervasive stress is a significant concern, exacerbated by systemic inequalities such as income disparities, housing issues, sexism, racism, and more. "Even if we're not directly targeted, you’re worried about whether your son or brother will get home safely, or how your elders will be treated. It can become a norm or a way of life," says Dr. Bryant, highlighting a common state of perpetual vigilance among Black individuals.

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Generational trauma is another critical aspect, with origins that can be traced back to the harsh realities faced by ancestors. This trauma can manifest in present-day anxieties and behaviors, though Dr. Bryant notes, "Not only do we have ancestral wounds, we also have ancestral wisdom."

Loneliness also poses a significant mental health challenge, one that has been increasingly recognized as a public health concern by figures such as Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who sounded the alarm in 2023. Again, this can look different for Black folks depending on the circumstances––single moms juggling work and child care, say, or professionals underrepresented in their fields. “Especially if you're in neighborhoods, on jobs, or on campuses, where you're one of few,” Thema says, “and that lack of community or support and belonging. As with the other issues, therapy can be helpful, but so can just reaching out. “Friendships and relationships where we can be real and authentic are important,” she says. “Not friends where I just give them surface answers and don't want them to ever see me sweat. Instead, we want to get to a place where we have mutual reciprocal friends, where I don't have to be superwoman or superman, but where my humanity is welcome.” 

Despite these challenges, there are ways to combat mental health issues: recognizing stress, managing it effectively, and nurturing supportive, authentic relationships are all part of the process. Additionally, the increasing number of Black professionals in psychology and mental health fields is beginning to change the landscape, offering culturally competent care and reducing stigma.

However, one of the most pressing issues remains the accessibility of mental health services. Many people in the Black community still struggle to access affordable and appropriate mental health care. This barrier must be addressed to ensure everyone can receive the support they need regardless of background or financial status. This Mental Health Awareness Month, it's crucial to acknowledge the strides made in understanding and treating mental health and recognize the significant work still required to make these services accessible to all.

Need some help? Here are a few resources to get support. 

Black Therapists Rock 

Therapy for Black Men 

Therapy for Black Girls 

Therapy in Color 

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