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Why we may not "want to talk about it," and how to help a loved with a mental health issue

As African Americans, we often find it difficult to talk about mental health because of long held stereotypes and fears about emotional and psychological distress. So many of us have received the message that we need to be strong and to just endure. These messages are embedded in our identities as Black people but also specifically as Black men and women. We often even impart these messages to our children, without realizing that strength, defined in this way, comes at a cost. Even super heroes have to rest.

Sometimes, we don't even give ourselves that. Sometimes we don't give this to our loved ones either. Despite these ideas, we all need help at times and often our loved ones can be the first line of defense against falling into even more distress.

Here are some reasons why we may be reluctant to seek the help we need and how we can begin to support others in in our lives who may benefit from the same (even if that "other" is us).

- We fear that others won’t understand, will judge, minimize our experiences or label us as “crazy.”

- We worry about “burdening” others with our “problems.” (I have especially heard this from women)

- We see ourselves and others see us as “the strong ones that everyone comes to for help and advice,” and we fear losing that image if we admit to having difficulties.

- Sometimes we don’t really know what is going on with us and are not really sure what to say or if things are “bad enough” to say anything at all.

- We fear that opening up means we won't be able to control the outcomes of facing experiences we have buried deep inside of ourselves.

- Family members and friends have either undermined us going to treatment and/or have referred us back to the church (i.e. God) as the most appropriate source for healing and help.

Even if we are not yet ready to seek out or receive help, we can assist our loved ones who may reach out. Here are some ideas:

  • Be genuine in your expression of concern.

  • Be open to listening with compassion and without judgment. This is not the time to tell someone what their experience is, let them tell you.

  • Know that just because a person may be experiencing psychological or emotional distress does not mean that they are not entitled to make whatever choices they are able to make at the time. Everyone responds better when they are treated with dignity, respect and a willingness to collaborate.

  • Try to talk about their experience the way they are talking about it, rather than putting your own labels onto it. When people come into my office and they do not want to use labels like “depression” or “PTSD,” for example, I always ask them to describe their experiences to me in their own words and that is the language we use.

  • Let the person tell you what they need and as much as you are able and is reasonable, work to find a way to get that need met, even if it means compromising a bit.

  • Remember that psychological and emotional distress and disorder fall on a continuum and at any given point in any of our lives, given particular circumstances, many of us can experience similar if not the very same symptoms as those who may be carrying a diagnosis.

Your job is not to diagnose anyone nor to be their therapist, but you can point them in the right direction. The resources below are a start:

1. Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL): at 1-800-715-4225 which provides 24 hr. assistance.

2. The national suicide prevention hotline, at: 1-800.273.8255

3. Veteran’s Crisis Hotline (for U.S. veterans and their families): 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1

4. The National Partnership Against Domestic Violence. National hotline: 800.621.4673 . Metro Atlanta hotline: 404.873.1766

5. If dealing with substance use, there are also resources out there where people can go for help such as SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

6. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Peer run organization by people who have lived experience of mental illness: 800.950.6264 or Text NAMI to 741741

7. GLBT National Help Center: 1-888-843-4564

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