Black History Month
Reminding us that racism affects mental health.
Posted February 10, 2021
Just as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out that “there is no health without mental health,” there is no United States history without Black history. The presence, contributions, and accomplishments of generations of Americans of African descent, first brought here as enslaved people, are deeply woven into the story of our nation.
Black History Month actually grew out of Negro History Week, started by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1926. African American historian Carter G. Woodson and his colleagues selected the second week of February for this event, since it dovetailed with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. With impetus from the civil rights movement, Black History Month was formally recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976, and has been designated ever since by each U.S. president.
Black History Month leads us to revisit the achievements of African Americans throughout our history. But with the inequities that still exist in wealth, education, health care (including mental health), and criminal justice, it also shines a light on the systemic racism still rampant throughout our nation. It is important to acknowledge our past and look towards the future.
Influencers From All Walks of Life
African Americans have made a lasting impact on the field of mental health. Herman George Canady, Ph.D., was the first psychologist to study how IQ testing can be biased by the race of the test proctor. Research by Mamie Phipps Clark, the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, and her husband showed that segregation was psychologically harmful to Black children—findings successfully used in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D., a Stanford University psychology professor and MacArthur "Genius Grant" fellow, is a renowned expert on the repercussions of the psychological relationship between race and crime. And Maxie Clarence Maultsby, Jr., M.D., established the rational behavioral therapy psychotherapeutic method.
African American leaders in government (Barack Obama, Shirley Chisholm, Thurgood Marshall, Carol Moseley Braun), the abolitionist and civil rights movements (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Lewis), the arts and entertainment (Duke Ellington, Cicely Tyson, Alvin Ailey, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte), and sports (Jesse Owens, Frank Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Colin Kaepernick) have influenced generations of Black Americans, demonstrating the power that comes when their talents and hard work are recognized. Many of them took unprecedented risks because they believed they could initiate change. They paved the way for a young Harvard graduate, Amanda Gorman, to recite her own poem at last month’s presidential inauguration. They laid the foundation for three women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—to co-found the Black Lives Matter movement. Their examples drive Black Americans to dream and to achieve. They also should make Americans of other races realize how incomplete our American story would be without them.
Injustice Affects Black Mental Health
The late Congressman John Lewis said, “We must bring the issue of mental illness out into the sunlight, out of the shadow, out of the closet, deal with it, treat people, have centers where people can get the necessary help.” He had seen the stigma surrounding even the mention of mental health in the Black community, as well as the many stressors that were piling up: unemployment, health care, food and housing insecurity, and incarceration. In 2019, Thomas A. Vance, Ph.D., then a postdoctoral clinical and research fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said, “It is clear that systematic barriers disproportionately impact mental health in the Black community.” He went on to advocate for culturally responsive mental health treatment, to directly address the increased rate of mental health concerns among Black adults.
Racism has been declared a public health crisis in a number of jurisdictions and states throughout the country. It is well documented that African Americans are more likely to experience or report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, sadness, fear, and anxiety due to ongoing bias in our country. Those conditions were further exacerbated in 2020, with the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, and Breonna Taylor. As Angelia Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “…with the placement of a knee on George Floyd’s neck, racism shifted from a chronic stressor to a trauma trigger.” When young Black Americans go out with their friends for the evening, imagine the mental toll it takes on their parents, wondering every time if they will return home safely or become another statistic of racial prejudice.
The Business Community Must Step Up
President Biden’s executive order addressing racial disparities is a step in the right direction. But it is incumbent on the corporate world to adopt practices that will help reverse the trauma that Black Americans are experiencing. I call on businesses to hire more Black Americans, increasing both economic equality and self-esteem. To further improve the mental health of African Americans, employers should dedicate themselves to providing supportive work environments, free of microaggressions and offering physical and mental health care options. Since we know that a seat at the table can begin to turn the tide for any group seeking change, I encourage all business leaders to network, advocate for, and secure positions on corporate boards, to guide greater diversification in hiring from top to bottom and add more inclusive strategic planning.
Growing up in rural North Carolina—and dreaming of making a difference as a doctor—I encountered racism all along the way. As a Black American physician, I witnessed first-hand the racial inequities in our health system. Now, as CEO of an international consulting firm offering services that range from health care information solutions to cybersecurity and intelligence, I experience inequalities every day, as do the people I work with and for.
I told the Washington Business Journal last summer that an interconnection exists between all of us—and I truly believe that. I will continue to advocate for respect, collaboration, and especially listening. If we take what we hear, and apply it to improving employment, education, criminal justice, and entrepreneurship, we have a chance to achieve equality and peace of mind for all.