Panel discusses mental illness stigma facing minorities
The Gainesville Sun - 7/27/2018
July 27--The stigma associated with mental illness, especially in the black community, often serves as a barrier to those who need to be treated for mental illness related issues.
Eliminating that stigma was the focus of a town hall discussion held Thursday evening at the University of Florida Health Street building off Archer Road as part of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Sponsored by HealthStreet's Our Community, Our Health program, the discussion primarily dealt with mental health issues facing the black community.
Three expert panelists talked about how historical oppression and discrimination, coupled with a lack of access to mental health resources and other factors have led to minority communities not taking advantage of mental health services like their white counterparts.
The discussion was moderated by Pamela Koons, director of At The WELLness Network and a board member of the Gainesville chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness. Koons ended the discussion, which was live-streamed, by asking the panelists to talk about how the stigma about mental illness can be eliminated in the black community.
People need to become more educated about mental illness and more people need to seek help when they feel they need it, said Michelle Jacobs-Elliott, a staff psychiatrist with the UF Student Health Care Center.
"We can start with teaching our children how to handle their emotions," Jacobs-Elliott said.
Everybody has emotions, but it's how people handle their emotions is what's most important, she said.
Just like people who suffer from diabetes, hypertension and other diseases, sometimes people with brain-based diseases need medicine to treat their diagnosis, Jacobs-Elliott and the other panelists said.
There needs to be a redefining of what is considered normal when trying to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness in the black community, said Micah Johnson, a National Institute of Health Post-Doctoral Fellow in the UF Colleges of PHHP and Medicine.
"Mental health professionals must have better relationships with minority communities," Johnson said.
Minorities have to feel safe going to see mental health professionals, he said.
Agreeing with Johnson, Jacobs-Elliott added that more minorities need to be represented in the mental health professions. She said one of the joys she gets as a psychiatrist is seeing her black patients become comfortable talking with her because they may feel she can relate to them and understand them better because she, as a black woman, can relate to them culturally.
Talking about, recognizing and acknowledging signs of mental illness will go a long way toward eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness, said Andres Pumariega, professor and chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the UF College of Medicine and UF Health.
Near the beginning of the discussion, Koons cited a couple of startling statistics. She said for the first time ever, black children ages 5 to 12 are committing suicide more than their white counterparts and that 65 percent of black children in the juvenile justice system are identified as having untreated mental health issues.
Johnson told a story about a young black man who acted out one day in class as an 8-year-old and was placed in the juvenile justice system, while a white boy the same age who acted out in similar fashion was able to use the resources at his disposal to help for a mental disorder.
The black boy in the story at the age of 26 was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a crime, and it could be argued his fate may have been different if he would have received the mental health help he needed as a child, Johnson said.
The stigma associated with mental illness also plays a role in how mental health resources are funded, Pumariega said.
Insurance companies often don't want to pay mental health professions adequately for their services and politicians oftentimes don't see the value of investing in mental health programs, he said.
However, when it comes to saving children from suicide, Pumariega said some things that are hard to do must be done.
"We've got to be brave enough to ask our children if they are thinking about committing suicide," Pumariega said.
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