Blacks shy away from mental health assistance

Kristoff St.John
Kristoff St.John
Briana Bell
Briana Bell

The recent death of actor Kristoff St. John, coming just a week after he reportedly sought help for depression, shines the light on mental health while exposing a topic often ignored among blacks. St. John, 52, wasn't the stereotypical white male or even a white female often depicted in the media as suffering from a mental illness. Statistically, however, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services. Yet, adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts. St. John, who was an African-American, played Neil Winters on the CBS daytime soap opera "The Young and the Restless." He was found dead Feb. 3 at a home in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles. He lost his son to suicide in 2014. Some reports cite grief as a potential fact in the actor's own death. Mental illness is still a taboo in the black community, said Briana Bell, a senior majoring in communication studies with a concentration in theatre arts performance here at Bethune-Cookman University. "They already try to make our people look unstable and violent, so adding a form of mental illness to them will only make society look at us with an even more negative light and that's not fair," the 22-year-old said. She said that she has struggled with mental illness since the age of 13. "There [are] high days [that] are really high, yet the low days are really low. Like myself, sometimes I've struggled with my disorder so much that I didn't want to leave my bed and I just wanted to give up," she said. Bell said she learned to cope with her mental health by visiting a counselor. "Always stay strong and remember things will get better," she said, while calling for ways to increase awareness about mental illness among the public and, in particular, within the black community in an effort to eliminate the negative viewpoint African-Americans have about seeking help. Bell also says that mental health awareness should not be taken lightly. "Being educated brings awareness and it allows the community to open their closed minds and accept those who are different." She also said that having more awareness will offer new gateways to those who may be battling with mental illness. "Mental illness has a different effect on everyone who struggles with it. Some have a better control of it than others. This affects how they feel, how they function through the day [...]" Amanda Perez, a licensed mental health counselor, offers counseling to individuals here on campus. She also provides group therapy to students who struggle with substance abuse. Perez began her career in 2013 at Stewart Marchman Act Behavioral Healthcare, where she worked as a behavioral technician while earning her master's degree in mental health counseling. She has been working at B-CU since March 2018. Perez said that mental health awareness can normalize something seen as taboo. "It is so difficult for people to talk about their emotional well-being, their battles with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder" and the like, she said, adding that getting the word out can also help individuals receive aid for disorders that are treatable. Perez said there are a number of students on campus who struggle with mental illness. "I've worked with several students who struggle with adjustment, chronic depression and anxiety." She adds that others who suffer with depression and anxiety, have a difficult time doing things they once enjoyed. Students with mental illness often are reluctant to go out to social events, spend time with friends and participate in extracurricular activities. Other telltale signs can include failure to take care of hygiene and personal appearance, according to Perez. Perez said she thinks that the mental health taboo in the African-American community stems from fear and lack of trust. "I think people are afraid of being labeled 'crazy' when in reality, most people, at some point in their life have dealt with mental illness," she said. She said, in the attempt to spread counseling services with the students, her office confronts such stigmas with the students. When the counselors ask the students about their family's viewpoints on counseling, she said, the feedback is generally either "pray about it," or "family problems are not discussed outside the home." Reports note that most African-Americans families depend on religion, social outlets, and other coping mechanisms rather than going to health care professionals. This mindset has become a generational thing, Perez said. "The 'don't talk, don't tell' mentality has been passed down from generation to generation, and unless we begin to normalize seeking help, not much will change." Perez also said that while counseling is not necessarily a quick fix to life's problem, it can provide students the skills needed to live a healthier lifestyle. The campus counseling services are located in the infirmary. For more information or to make an appointment, please contact Nadine Heusner, Assistant Vice President, Disabilities, at 386-481- 2170 or email her at heusnern@ cookman.edu.