Mental Health and the African American Community

Photo by Sam Burriss

By Ray Anthony Brown, MS., BC-HSP

After months of weeping and mourning many people around the Lowcountry (African American and otherwise) have yet to come to terms with the quadruple homicide in the historically black Hamlin community of Mount Pleasant. I was personally touched by this incident as I knew the victims as well as the victimizer. I met them in passing during my travels in the community to the barber shop and the shrimp house to purchase oysters. It was those brief interactions that stirred me to write this article.

Years ago while working at a mental health clinic a person suffering from psychosis stabbed his mother over fifty times. Shortly before the tragedy he had been in the clinic searching for his brother who was a client there. His behavior gave very little indication that he would commit such a brutal act just minutes later. Even those with the most trained eyes can’t be completely clear about the behaviors and actions of a person suffering from psychosis. When dealing with persons that we suspect to be psychotic we must seek professional help immediately.

In the aftermath of such tragedies we often ask ourselves could we have said or done something to change the outcome? Regarding the quadruple homicide I thought perhaps I could have said,”Hey I worked in the field of mental health for over 25 years so if you know someone who needs help have them call me.” I don’t know if such words would have made any difference, but it’s possible. In response to that possibility I would like to share some advice in terms of identifying mental illness and resources that can be accessed to support families who may be facing mental health concerns.

While the church is the anchor of the black community, we must understand that our creator has provided places to help us with these types of problems and bringing someone suffering from a mental illness to church for healing is only part of the solution. We should never fail to seek professional treatment.

Research suggests African Americans experience more severe forms of mental health issues and because of barriers like lack of health care, poverty and lack of education (and stigma) regarding mental health many African Americans fail to receive the services they desperately need. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population.  Common mental health disorders among African Americans include major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), suicide (particularly among black men) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common, but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect one’s energy level, appetite and sleep patterns to name a few. Sufferers report constantly feeling sad and a sense of hopelessness. Everyone experiences sadness, but when it persists for more than two weeks, in conjunction with other symptoms and signs, professional help should be sought. Some forms of depression include persistent depressive disorder (when a depressed feeling persist for 24 months or longer), postpartum depression (a common, but seldom treated form of depression mothers suffer from during or after birth), psychotic depression (when a person has severe depression and loses touch with reality) and seasonal affective disorder (when one becomes depressed during the winter months when there is less daylight).

ADHD is the inability of the brain to concentrate, which affects a person ability to function and live a happy, productive life. Three major symptoms are inability to stay on task/focused, hyperactivity (constantly moving touching, tapping or talking) and impulsivity (making poorly informed decisions spontaneously without regard for the seriousness of the action). The rate of ADHD is almost the same among African Americans and white racialized Americans however, African Americans are diagnosed with and treated at a lower rate.

Although African American suicide rates are lower overall, suicide is the third leading cause of death among black males ages 15-24 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. College students are especially prone to suicide and the rate is increasing.

PTSD may develop in individuals who have lived through traumatic or dangerous events like military service, natural disaster, sexual trauma and community or domestic violence. Symptoms include unexpectedly reliving the experience(s), emotional numbness, avoidance behaviors and the feeling of constant alertness to potential dangers. Studies examining African American rates of PTSD suggest that the black community experiences a high rate of severe trauma that commonly goes undetected and untreated. This is particularly true in impoverished communities with higher crime rates. African American women and children tend to have higher rates of PTSD. Those who get treatment for PTSD tend to have better outcomes and can be relieved of traumatic feelings over time.

Psychosis symptoms may include having disturbing false beliefs (delusions) and hallucinations. People suffering from psychosis usually experience a break with reality, i.e., how they view and think about the world around them. They have difficulty recognizing what is real and what is not. According to National Alliance for Mental Illness, psychosis is experienced by 3% of the population (including children/adolescents) over 50% of whom never receive professional mental health services.

There are different reasons that prevent African Americans from seeking treatment and receiving quality care for mental illness. In the African American community, there is a misunderstanding and stigma attached to mental health and frankly there needs to be more conversation about it and how to cope with trauma and abuse in a healthy way. We need to encourage one another to seek out treatment and understand mental health issues can’t be healed by prayer alone. We must understand that having a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean someone is crazy, weak, evil or cursed by God. With early treatment people dealing with mental health issues can live happy and productive lives. Lack of treatment however, can lead to low self esteem, trauma and death.

If you suspect you (or a loved one) are experiencing a mental health condition it is important that to seek out treatment. This can lead to a strengthening of oneself and the ability to better cope with mental illness in the future. Many times treatment can involve just speaking to a mental health professional who can give advice. However, some conditions may need more intensive therapies or treatments. Decreasing the amount of trauma, stress and negative social interaction we experience would decrease the amount mental illness in our communities overall.

The following is a list of local and national of mental health resources:

  • Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health – North Charleston, SC (843) 747-5830 Open 24 hours
  • Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center – Charleston, SC (843) 852-4100   
  • South Carolina Mental Health – Charleston, SC (843) 727-2005
  • Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health – North Charleston, SC (843) 747-5830
  • MUSC Institute of Psychiatry Psychiatric Hospital – Charleston, SC (843) 792-9888
  • Cognitive & Behavioral Health Center of Charleston Mental Health Clinic – Charleston, SC (843) 501-7001
  • Center for Behavioral Health Drug Addiction Treatment Center – North Charleston, SC (843) 529-0700
  • Life Resources Mental Health Service – Mt. Pleasant, SC (843) 884-3888  
  • Medical University of South Carolina Behavioral Health Mental Health Clinic – Charleston, SC (843) 792-0037
  • Therapy Studios – North Charleston, SC (843) 501-0903  
  • Steven Lopez, M.D. Carolina Coast Behavioral Services Mental Health Service – Charleston, SC (843) 259-8853
  • Roper St. Francis Physician Partners – Behavioral Medicine – Charleston, SC (843) 958-2555
  • New Directions Behavioral Health – North Charleston, SC (843) 737-6350  
  • Charleston Counseling Center Mental Health Service – Charleston, SC (843) 501-1099
  • Youth Advocate Program Mental Health Service – Charleston, SC (843) 554-2555
  • Davidson Sandy Family Counselor – Charleston, SC (843) 737-6350
  • The MENTOR Network Mental Health Service -Charleston, SC (843) 573-1905
  • Anxiety – connect with people dealing with everything from social anxiety to agoraphobia. Find a state-by-state list of support groups at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website
  • Depression – Locate an in-person or online group at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance site; lists support groups in nearly every state as well as in Canada and maintains an online forum about postpartum depression
  • Schizophrenia – The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America facilitates groups nationwide. Find one on its site ( or dial into its phone groups (855) 640-8271 at 7 P.M. ET Sunday, Thursday and Friday with the pass code 88286491#
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – More than 200 groups are listed with the International OCD Foundation, which aids those affected by the disorder and their families
  • Alcoholism – Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization maintains numerous support groups and hosts call-in and online sessions
  • Suicide – Join one of the many groups for survivors of loved ones who committed suicide listed on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website
  • Sexual Assault – is a message board and chat room for victims of sexual violence. Adult Survivors of Child Abuse organizes support groups around the U.S. and abroad and offers resources for those who want to start their own
  • Eating Disorders – Eating Disorder Hope catalogs online support groups
  • Sex Addiction – Sex Addicts Anonymous offers a widespread network of in-person, online and phone meetings
  • Self-Harming – Daily Strength hosts a web forum where people dealing with self-injury can find encouragement, understanding and a new way to cope
  • PTSD/Injured Veterans – VA Combat Call Center (877) WAR-VETS/(877) 927-8387 is staffed 24/7 by fellow combat veterans or spouses of disabled veterans who can offer immediate help; the Vet Center program site can direct visitors to both group and private counseling sessions in their area


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