Home Opinion Keeping it real: Important suggestions for BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month 

Keeping it real: Important suggestions for BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month 

Dr. Diane Gooding

In 2008, NAMI and the U.S. Congress designated July as the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. We are indebted to Bebe Moore Campbell for her activism and candid writings regarding mental illness in communities of color.  Hopefully, NAMI and perhaps the government can find a way to honor her many contributions, such as a postage stamp or a designated award. However, we need to start calling July BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month.

Bebe Moore Campbell

Words matter, and increasingly, applying the term “minority” to ethnic and racial groups is viewed by many as offensive. BIPOC is the acronym for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.  The term “BIPOC” includes all people in the following groups:  Black, African, African-American, West-Indian;  Indigenous and Native (all 550+ tribal nations); Asian Indian, Cambodian, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Hmong, and Vietnamese; Latinx, Chicano, Hispanic; Middle-Eastern, Arab; and multi-ethnic. As our language evolves, hopefully, NAMI and the mental health community at large can lead the way in changing our terms accordingly. As always, with any group, but particularly with groups who have experienced discrimination, we at NAMI strive to be flexible, open, and culturally humble as we listen to others’ feedback regarding identifying them. Self-identification is empowering. 

The goals of BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month are simple: to bring greater awareness about the mental health needs of BIPOC communities. Just as there are unique aspects to each culture, there are particular ways each group regards mental illness.  Nonetheless, some commonalities bind us.  

This has definitely been a challenging time. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately ravaged our black and brown communities, leaving many families without their loved ones and forever changing the lives of those who survived the pandemic, albeit with organ failure. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems as though we’ve been battling a pandemic of racial and ethnic intolerance. For example, there have been so many instances of mental illness being criminalized that all too often, when family members of color want to reach out in a crisis, they are hesitant to call the police.   

Here are some suggestions as we move through this month and beyond. 

  1. Know the signs.  Know what mental illness looks like

First, we need better education around mental health and mental illness across all age groups. It’s essential to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness so that you know when to seek help for yourself or your loved ones. The signs of depression and anxiety in children may look quite different than they do in teens and quite different than they do in adults. Depression in men may look different than it does in women.  Bipolar depression looks different from the depression accompanying major depressive disorder. 

  1. Know when to get help and seek treatment.

We also know that BIPOC folks are much less likely to get the necessary treatment for their mental illness. The reason may be distrust of the medical profession or the mental health field. This is understandable given the historical treatment of many BIPOC people in this country. There is also a reluctance to seek help from people who either do not look or communicate like you. However, it is still important to seek help. Increasingly, our graduate programs in Clinical and Counselling Psychology, social work, and Psychiatry emphasize the importance of being culturally responsive and reflective.  

Here are key things to look for in a therapist or counselor: You want a sense that they respect your cultural background and your experiences as well as your individuality. Ideally, you want a counselor who understands the concept of intersectionality, that is, how the various aspects of your identity interact. I advise people to expend at least as much effort finding a good therapist as they would in finding a good hairdresser, barbershop, or tailor.  

Cost of treatment and being uninsured or underinsured are often mentioned as a deterrent to getting help. Do not underestimate your local community mental health centers.  Also, most therapists are used to being asked about sliding fee scales.  Fortunately, mental illness information and treatment are available in a variety of formats.   

Please email the NAMI-Dane County office for a handout that provides resources for BIPOC mental health, including podcasts, websites, and other organizations that can refer you to culture-specific therapists. If you are interested in enlisting counseling or therapy from someone who offers telehealth in another area (for example, Georgia or New Mexico), make sure that they have licensing privileges in Wisconsin (or wherever you reside) so that your insurance can cover at least part of it (if possible). 

  1. Kick the stigma.  Mental illness is just that; it’s an illness.

 There is an incredible amount of mental illness stigma among BIPOC groups. No, mental illness is not just a “white thing” or a “middle-class thing. Here’s what the experts in the field know: mental illness affects everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. Mental illness is not a personal failing, nor a sin or the result of a curse.  We must convey to our BIPOC brothers and sisters that a mental illness is just like any other (physical) illness. Like physical disorders, mental illnesses vary in terms of severity. Finally, having to take medication does not imply anything in terms of your capabilities. 

  1. There’s a new crisis line that you can call: 988. 

You can now call 988 during a mental health, substance use or suicide crisis. 

Suicide is real and it’s disproportionately affecting the BIPOC communities. This is partly a reflection of untreated mental illness and disparities in healthcare,  and understandable reluctance to call the police during a crisis situation. Now, however, there’s an alternative.  You can call 988 and speak to someone trained in mental health. They are available 24/7. 

  1. Call upon the unique strengths and resiliencies associated with your community.

Getting treatment for emotional problems and mental illness does not negate the richness of your heritage. In fact, you will want to call upon the unique strengths and resilience associated with your particular community in order to help you in your recovery journey.  This may include incorporating prayer groups, rituals, or alternative therapies in addition to the traditional mental health treatment. Like any illness, mental illness can feel like an isolative experience. Enjoy the special foods and traditions that tie you to your community. Remember, the resiliency of our communities has been central to our survival. Your seeking help will strengthen you so that you can continue contributing to your community.