Stigma is Greater Among African Americans

Oct 1, 2019

Peer Support Specialist Leslie Saunders says that stigma is rampant within the African American community. “With the efforts, at best, we are just touching the surface,” he said.

Many people feel shame and choose to try to get better on their own. They attempt to “suck it up” and live with it or self-medicate to meet their needs. Families may also contribute to stigma, preferring to keep mental health challenges within the family.

Saunders says there is a lack of a strategic approach to educate people that they can improve and learn to live with their diagnosis through treatment.

According to NAMI, approximately 30 percent of African American adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43 percent.

There are many factors that may contribute to the stigma around mental illness in the minority community. According to Karl Shallowhorn, chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition and education program coordinator, Community Health Center of Buffalo, Inc., these can include a long history of racial discrimination and multi-generational issues.

“Both women and men experience stigma,” Shallowhorn said. “Women are maternal and may carry the weight of their families, they feel they can’t show weakness and have to be present for their families,” he said. “And men often don’t communicate and are not willing to show signs of vulnerability.”

In the African American community, people are less inclined to share their mental health struggles or rely on church and social communities for support rather than seeking professional help.

Join the Conversation and many community partners are working to address this issue through education and outreach. A community forum was held on Tuesday, October 1 at 6 p.m. at the Frank E. Merriweather, Jr. Library. Speakers included Anti-Stigma Coalition chair Karl Shallowhorn.

Erin M. Moss LMHC, one of the panelists for the October 1 program, explains that poverty and social structure also have an impact on people seeking treatment.

“With our historical roots, there are so many disparities and black people have been oppressed on a mass scale,” she said. “People are afraid to trust.”

They may be reluctant to seek medical care because of shame or fear of how they will be treated. Moss also suggests that people don’t seek treatment because they can’t find a provider that looks like them or understands what they are experiencing.

“People don’t hesitate to seek medical treatment for other medical issues, yet there is shame across the board regarding mental health,” Moss said.

Anti-Stigma Coalition organizational member Community Health Center of Buffalo serves a large African American population. Horizon Health, Best Self and other providers provide behavioral health to the African American population as well.

One of Shallowhorn’s goals as the new chair of the Coalition, is to expand the Let’s Talk Stigma campaign to groups and organizations in local communities of color where stigma is a significant issue.


According to NAMI, approximately 30% of African American adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%

NAMI suggests some questions to ask of potential mental health providers:

  • Have you treated other African Americans?
  • Have you received training in cultural competence or on African American mental health?
  • How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?
  • How do you plan to integrate my beliefs and practices in my treatment?

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