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African Americans’ Vulnerability to Mental Disorders

Closely intertwined with the challenges of HIV education and treatment in African American communities are the challenges of identifying, treating, and living with mental disorders. A range of factors contributes to the under-diagnosis and under-treatment of mental disorders among African Americans: [NAMI African American, 2009]

  • Historical experiences of misdiagnoses, inadequate or no treatment, and cultural barriers to communication have limited access to both general healthcare and mental healthcare services.
  • African Americans are seriously under-represented among mental health professionals, with only 2% of psychiatrists, 2% of psychologists, and 4% of social workers being African American.
  • For emotional support, African Americans traditionally have been more likely to turn to family members, religious institutions, and social networks, rather than to mental health professionals.
  • Mental disorders may be stigmatized or not understood as serious concerns that merit professional care.
  • Unemployment and underemployment and lack of insurance coverage limit access to both medical and mental healthcare service.

In addition, significant numbers of African Americans experience social circumstances that can be associated with a greater likelihood of developing a mental disorder:

  • Homelessness increases vulnerability to the development of a mental disorder, and African Americans comprise approximately 40% of the homeless population but only approximately 12% of the total US population.
  • Incarcerated persons are highly vulnerable to developing a mental disorder, and nearly one-half of US inmates are African American.
  • Children who are in foster care or child welfare systems are more likely to develop mental disorders, and 45% of the public foster care population is African American children.
  • Exposure to violence increases vulnerability to mental disorders, and more than 25% of African American children who are exposed to violence meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Howard University College of Medicine AIDS Education and Training Center - National Multicultural Center