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Breaking the stigma of seeking mental health services in communities of color

Posted at 7:00 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 22:00:46-04

PHOENIX — There are several hurdles when it comes to communities of color seeking professional help for mental health issues.

Things like access to services and cost are major factors, "But there's also a significant level of distrust," said Diamond Bracey, a nationally certified counselor and Ph.D. student at NAU.

Historically, Native Americans see the system as stealing their land, African Americans afraid it will lock them up, and Hispanics with fears of deportation.

So when it comes to seeking professional help, communities of color hesitate to confide their personal business to a complete stranger.

"African Americans want to in general speak to somebody who they believe can understand their experience," Bracey said.

Potential Black patience, she says, have to overcome decades of community culture that's taught them, "Keep your mouth shut, don't talk to authorities." Even if what you're holding on to inside is causing you great stress or anxiety.

"When you look at the historical traumas that have been encountered and how some are even here today, those still have a lot of impact," Bracey said.

And when it comes to young Black males especially, they encounter even more weight placed on them by society.

"It's what they call the Adultification of African-American boys," Bracey said. "Which means that those who are younger are perceived as older or adults by the system," she said. "This is a child!" she exclaimed. "But they are not seen as children, and that is a problem," she said.

That's one of the reasons that Black communities are taught to keep thoughts and feelings in house.

"You might find that an African-American patient before they made it to the doctor, talk to the grandmother, or talk to a pastor, or talk to a significant other in their household, in the community," Bracey said.

And while Bracey says that's better than nothing, friends and family she says, aren't professionally trained to help you heal.

"They mean well, but they don't know well," she says.

Bracey is encouraged that many celebrities in the community are having the courage to come forward.

"We’re grateful for Simone Biles being able to do that," she said.

So how do we break the stigma?

Roberto Del Real is a licensed social worker with Chicanos Por La Causa, and works closely with youth in the Latino community.

"It's ok to be vulnerable, it's ok to say I need a little bit of help," he said.

Del Real says young Latinos are under enormous pressure.

From online bullying and body shaming, avoiding gangs, and serving as interpreters for their parents, life at times can seem overwhelming.

"Depression is a big thing, anxiety. Right now everyone has COVID burnout," Del Real said.

When it comes to getting someone to open up about their feelings, it's all about gaining trust.

"I always came at them this way, let's just have a conversation, I'm not part of your family, I'm not invested in you like they are. I'm not going to judge you, You can tell me anything you want, and it's going to stay in this room. Just let it out," he said.

"It’s like talking to someone at a bus stop sometimes. For whatever reason, we just connect with someone who's not invested in our lives and who's not gonna judge us. And I always feel like therapy, that's the way we should approach it."

And no problem is too small or insignificant to talk about.

"Sometimes the first session they're like, 'I'm healed, I feel better now I just spoke to someone.'"

But even if someone is ready to seek help, Del Real says, they don't always know where to turn.

"The other part is just access to services. A lot of times there isn't the correct services in our neighborhood," he said.

Tele-health has been a huge breakthrough as during the pandemic more people are seeking help virtually. Whether it be a group session or one-on-one people are more comfortable speaking out from the comfort and privacy of their own home.

And people's insurance is starting to cover more mental health services.

"It’s exhausting feeling miserable, feeling depressed, feeling angry. It takes its toll," Del Real said.

"It’s like praying. You pray... You feel good. You do meditation, you feel good. Therapy, the same thing," he said.

Melissa Wheeler grew up in Round Rock, Arizona in the central part of the Navajo nation, and attended Chinle High School.

She went on to attend a tribal community college in Albuquerque, New Mexico, got her associate's degree, and enrolled in the University of North Dakota. There she received her Bachelor's and Master's in Psychology, with an emphasis on addiction.

"I was interested in substance abuse and how that affected indigenous communities," she said.

She then came back home to NAU where she is now working to become a certified counselor.

"Native Americans, unfortunately, have some of the highest rates of mental health concerns," Wheeler said.

With so few Native doctors trained to help, she feels an obligation to give back.

"It’s exciting to know that there are possibilities of me continuing to work in rural spaces such as Flagstaff, or even on the Navajo Nation or other tribal communities in this area," Wheeler said.

But Wheeler understands getting members of her community to open up about their problems will be a challenge.

"There is still very much a stigma around seeking mental health services," she said.

"Finding someone that knows your background, or has a cultural understanding is important."

Serving the "whole body" has always been a big part of Native culture, Wheeler said. And mental health, "is health" she says.

"If we're not functioning at our best mentally, we're not functioning at our best physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well," she said.

Native Americans For Community Actions (NACA)

Two Spirit Support Groups

Southwest Behavioral and Health Services

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Chicanos Por La Causa