Black People Like Me Are Being Failed by the Mental Health System. Here’s How

Black People Like Me Are Being Failed by the Mental Health System. Here’s How

How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.

I remember first walking into my psychiatrist’s sterile office during my freshman year of college, ready to open up about my secret years-long battle with symptoms of a serious eating disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

I felt like I was choking in the waiting room, still so anxious about being vulnerable and seeking out help
I hadn’t told my parents, any family members, or friends. These were the first people that would know what I was going through. I could barely articulate my experiences because I was consumed by my internal monologue of shame and self-doubt.

Regardless, I challenged myself and sought out support from the school’s counseling center because my life had become truly unmanageable. I was isolated from friends on campus, barely eating and constantly exercising, and debilitated by my own self-hatred, depression, and fear.

I was ready to move on with my life and also make sense of confusing diagnoses I’d received from professionals before.

However, my leap of faith was met with a shattering sense of disappointment
As I tried to receive treatment for these illnesses, mental health professionals to whom I entrusted my care misled me.

My eating disorder was diagnosed as adjustment disorder. My moodiness, a direct result of malnutrition, was mistaken for a serious chemical imbalance — bipolar disorder — and a reaction to a stressful life change.

My OCD, with an extreme obsession around cleanliness and compulsions to manage my fears around death, became paranoid personality disorder.

I’d opened up about some of the greatest secrets in my life only to be called “paranoid” and “maladjusted.” I can’t imagine many other scenarios that would’ve felt like such a betrayal.

Despite hardly exhibiting the symptoms of any of these diagnoses, the professionals I interacted with had no problem piling on labels only mildly connected to my real problems.

And no one had any problems doling out prescriptions — Abilify and other antipsychotics — for problems that I didn’t have, all while my eating disorder and OCD were killing me.

Mental health professionals don’t know how to diagnose Black people
The process of being repeatedly misdiagnosed is frustrating and frightening, but not uncommon for Black people.

Even when we clearly display signs of poor mental health or of a specific mental illness, our mental health continues to be misunderstood — with deadly consequences.

Racial misdiagnosis isn’t a recent phenomenon. There’s a long standing tradition of Black people not having their mental health needs met.

For decades, Black men have been misdiagnosed and overdiagnosed with schizophrenia as their emotions are read as psychotic.

Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than their white peers to show signs of bulimia, but get diagnosed significantly less, even if they have identical symptoms.

Black mothers are at a greater risk for postpartum depression, but are less likely to receive treatment.

Even though my symptoms for both illnesses were standard, my diagnoses were blurred by my Blackness.

I’m not the thin, affluent, white woman many white mental health professionals imagine when they think of someone with an eating disorder. Black people are rarely regarded as a demographic dealing with OCD. Our experiences are forgotten or ignored.

For Black people dealing with mental illnesses, especially ones that don’t stereotypically ‘fit,’ these are serious roadblocks to our wellness
As for me, my eating disorder stayed active for over five years. My OCD escalated to the point where I literally couldn’t touch door knobs, elevator buttons, or my own face.

It wasn’t until I began working with a therapist of color that I received the diagnosis that saved my life and put me in treatment.

But I am far from the only person to have been failed by the mental health system.

The facts are staggering. Black people are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health problems compared to the rest of the population.

Black children under the age of 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to their white peers. Black teenagers are also more likely to attempt suicide than white teens.

As Black people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, more needs to be done to ensure we receive the necessary treatment. We deserve to have our mental health needs treated accurately and seriously.

Obviously, part of the solution is training mental health professionals on how to deal with Black mental illness. Moreover, more Black mental health professionals, who are less likely to mistake emotions for psychiatric disorders, need to be hired.

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