Harlem Word: Dr. Hankerson talks about depression and stigma in the African American community

GHHEditor January 23rd, 2015

Dr. Sidney Hankerson, MD, MBA is a psychiatrist  who is currently working at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.  His work focuses on helping African Americans have more access to mental health treatment. In this article he talks about how depression is affecting African American communities.

Q. What are the biggest challenges that African Americans face with depression?

A. I think the biggest challenge is just dealing with the stigma of having a mental illness. In African American communities, there’s a lot of shame about depression and about going to see a psychiatrist or psychologist for therapy. The reason people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about having depression is because they see it as punishment for something that they may have done in the past. Others might think that it seems like a sign of personal weakness or laziness, or that depression is a “white disease” that does not affect the African American community. Stigma is definitely the biggest problem to overcome in terms of education and treatment for depression.

Q. Are some people not getting treatment because of stigma about depression?

A. Yes, the treatment rates for depression show that most people of color, such as African Americans and Latinos, use medical help much less than other ethnic groups. Stigma is probably the biggest barrier or obstacle to treatment in the African American community.

Q. Are there any other barriers to people receiving treatment for depression, especially in the African American community?

A. Many people distrust mental healthcare professionals, so they don’t go and get diagnosed or get the care they need. I think there’s a lot mis-education or misunderstanding about what psychiatrists or mental health counselors would do.  There are also practical challenges to getting treatment, such as a limited number of providers, financial constraints, lack of health insurance, and lack of knowledge of people who are able to provide depression care if they do need treatment.

Q. What are your suggestions for overcoming some of these obstacles?

A. We hope that by providing church-based care we will be able to educate people of faith and help them learn about what mental health issues are and how they can deeply affect people’s lives. We can also explain what providers do and the resources available for mental health treatment. Because some people believe that faith in God alone can cure mental health issues, many people believe that they don’t need to or shouldn’t get help. This creates a social stigma that keeps people from getting the care that they need, especially in the African American community.  We want to build relationships between mental health professionals and churches so people realize that prayer, talk therapy, and medications can work together for depression treatment.

We have also chosen to work in churches because they are trusted places. People will feel more comfortable receiving information about mental health if church leaders and other people of faith support treating mental health issues through the professional health care system. We can reach out to more people who are not covered by health insurance by providing mental health education and care in a church. We look forward to expanding this mental health education and care and involving as many churches as possible. When it is common to have these services in churches, people will go to a church in their community to get treatment for mental health issues. Our goal is to work with Northern Manhattan churches and community members to overcome the stigma and barriers that prevent people from getting help for depression.



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