Mental Health: Not Just a White People Thing

There are a lot of things I used to consider “white people things”; besides kale and veganism, mental health used to be one of them. My Asian American family dismissed suicide and depression as mere mood swings to overcome. Mental health, as perceived by my family and friends of color, was just another “white people thing.”

The whitewashed media portrayal of mental health permeates mental health education. Brochures, documentaries, and curriculums are filled with white faces, maybe with a few token minority faces here and there. The current dominant narrative centers white cisgender males, neglecting racialized and gendered experiences with mental illness.

In the United States, 17 to 20 million people are affected by depression each year, but according to The Huffington Post, African Americans are more likely to report major depression than whites. In 2011, the Office of Minority Health found that Latina/Hispanic girls in grades 9-12 were 70 percent more likely to attempt suicide than white females. Moreover, adolescent American Indian/Alaskan Native females have a death rate from suicide four times the rate for white females in the same age group. Clearly, from these statistics, mental health is an issue for communities of color as well.

For people of color, navigating daily routines and interactions are laden with encountering implicit or explicit biases from others (i.e. microaggressions and macroaggressions). For black Americans in particular, NPR declares that “racism and legacies associated with slavery and discrimination have produced and continue to produce additional stress for black Americans,” as well as a deepening sense of futility and lack of self-worth.

In reality, mental illness is just as prevalent for people of color as it is for whites, but the lack of POC representation in public discussions of these issues perpetuates the dominant white male-centered narrative. Recognizing the multiplicity of identities that experience mental illness and the heterogeneity of those experiences is imperative in our dialogues.

Unsurprisingly, minorities are more likely to go untreated for mental illness and significantly less likely to proactively seek treatment compared to whites. According to the Asian American Suicide Prevention & Education organization, only two percent of Asian Americans affected by depression mention symptoms to their doctor, compared to the national average of 13 percent. Higher rates of care dropout pervade POC communities, including far more frequent reports of dissatisfaction with service providers. Certainly obstacles such as poor quality health care, lack of cultural matching, and language barriers contribute to the overall reluctance to pursue resources. Unfortunately, culturally-specific stigmas attached to mental health also impede the necessary acquisition of resources and support. These taboos, combined with the media’s lack of representation of POC, further push racial minorities to the periphery of the conversation on mental health.

The silence around race and mental health further suppresses the struggles of POC. That’s why centering and sharing the voices and stories of POC in mental health conversations is a crucial first step in deconstructing the notion of mental illness as a “white people issue” and in normalizing POC’s experiences. Latina feminist Dior Vargas has taken this step by implementing a photo campaign to empower people of color to advocate for mental health. Recently, the Mental Health Alliance had a table at a 5C Asian American Pacific Islander event, reaching out specifically to a cultural community. While diversity in media representation of mental health would not solve stigmas, it would let POC know that they are not alone in their struggles.

Justina Wu PO ’19 hails from Bellevue, Wash., and intends to major in public policy analysis and sociology.

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