ELYRIA — For generations, African-Americans understood only one truth when confronted with issues of mental health and emotional trauma: Silence was survival.
“You didn’t speak up for yourself, you didn’t speak for your friend, you didn’t speak for anything,” said Regan Phillips, second vice president of the Elyria Unit of the NAACP. “How can you dare even speak for anything much less your health?”
This is a story about mental health within the African-American community and how generations of sufferers who were reluctant — more often too scared — to seek help have resulted in a population in trouble. But this also is a story about the efforts underway to break those strongholds in the community and the people who are on the front lines.
Shelle Mathis has been working in mental health services for more than 16 years. She opened a private practice, Shelle M. Mathis Counseling Services, six years ago on North Ridge Road in Lorain and recently expanded into Elyria with an office on Fourth Street. She has 40 active clients and four support groups.
Mathis’ provides service to primarily African-American Christian women, but all races and genders are accepted. Through years of working in mental health services — both as a African-American woman and working with a mostly African-American clients — Mathis said many of her clients suffer from unrecognized traumatic events, substance abuse or learned self-destructive behaviors that come from years of repression and unresolved familial problems.
Mathis calls these “generational traumas.”
Some may have occurred decades ago, involving people who aren’t even alive anymore, but still generational traumas are affecting people today, she said. It’s those generational traumas that must be recognized before any real change can be made.
“I can deal with your depression and your anxiety and bipolar all day long,” she said from her new office. “I can give you coping skills and things like that, but if I’m not getting to the root of the way you won’t confront something, that’s just not going to be enough for you.”
Breaking the cycle
The best way to overcome these traumas is to seek mental health care, Mathis said, but that too is a stigma in African-American culture.
To learn more about what mental health service options are available, call the mental health board non-emergency navigator line at (440) 240-7025 during regular business hours. For an immediate crisis, call 911 or Lorain County’s 24/7 Mental Health Crisis Hotline at (800) 888-6161. You also can request a free mental health seminar for any Lorain County church, civic group or workplace by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the Lorain County Mental Health Board, during fiscal year 2018 for clients under Medicaid and non-Medicaid adult clients, about 13 percent identified as African-American. Meanwhile, 61 percent of clients identified as white while 19 percent had race classified as unknown or did not share their race or ethnicity. Just 4 percent of clients identified as Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American/other.
African-Americans, as well as other minorities, seem to avoid or ignore mental health services.
Phillips said the African-American community keeps silent as a result of years of racial and cultural oppression.
When a slave spoke out of turn or expressed an independent thought, they would be physically and emotionally punished for it. After the emancipation of the slaves, African-Americans were subject to mob lynching, intimidation from hate groups and police brutality if they were too vocal.
By the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many still felt hesitant to be more vocal about personal issues in their lives.
Phillips said mental illnesses and emotional trauma are subjects African-Americans, as well as other minorities, avoided complaining about to doctors, law enforcement or other authorities for fear of attacks or abuse.
In order to break this silence, Phillips said the important thing to do was create a support system within their own circles of race or culture.
“We have to make it a No. 1 priority to absolutely share with our loved ones or anyone in our reach about the importance that our health is our wealth,” she said.
Mathis agreed with that sentiment and has tried to offer that circle of support through her counseling services, finding that many of her clients would want to find a counselor who is African-American like them to better understand their personal struggles and background.
Mathis wants to break the stigma against mental health professionals in the African-American community.
In her 16 years of practice, she said she’s heard a lot of African-American clients share their fears of opening up to professionals who may not understand their culture or their problems.
Carolyn Smith, one of Mathis’ clients for the past two months, sought help from a mental health professional of her same ethnicity because she felt she wouldn’t connect with a therapist of another ethnicity.
She said she had another counselor before Mathis whom she thought didn’t understand what she was going through because of her race.
Smith also said she has felt hesitant to share personal mental and emotional issues in her family. She admitted that she felt an irrational fear of opening up to anyone outside the family about her issues.
“I feel like if we were to go out and say something, our families would feel like we were betrayed or something like that,” she said. “Like the next family is going to talk about us like we are struggling or poor, which is really being frowned upon. So (we think) let’s just keep it closed in amongst ourselves so we can talk about it.”
According to 2016 data from the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-American adults are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than white adults. Additionally, a report from 2008 to 2012 by the National Alliance of Mental Health revealed African-Americans are the third least likely demographic to seek mental health care, just beneath Asian and Latin Americans.
If left unchecked, these problems can lead to behaviors where people can become a danger to themselves and others.
Mathis said one of the telltale signs of trauma is depression, anxiety, dissociative/repressed thoughts and post traumatic stress disorder.
She said many of her African-American clients exhibit those symptoms and come to her for traumatic events in their lives including rape, molestation and other things that have come up after years of repression.
Other outlets for mental health services include the Lorain County Urban League, which has partnered with the Lorain County Mental Health Board to provide access to mental health services and support for African-Americans and people of color.
“In past times, we lacked the access to the mental health services we needed,” Urban League President Frank Whitefield said in an email. “Today we have resources like the Lorain County Board of Mental Health that are helping close that gap to access to care.”