Disparities in access to mental health services still exist for African Americans


Since 1976, the month of February has been recognized as Black History Month in the United States -a specific period of time set aside to acknowledge the achievements of a group of Americans whose contributions to our nation have been invaluable and inextricable from those of the whole. The month also brings the opportunity for reflection.

According to data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), African Americans have less access to and availability of mental health services, are less likely to receive necessary mental health services, and are underrepresented in mental health research. Furthermore, when African Americans do seek treatment in our communities, they tend to receive lower quality services than their white counterparts (SAMHSA, 2009).

Terrie M. Williams, Co-founder and President of The Stay Strong Foundation, seeks to ameliorate these disparities by reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues in the African American community. Supported by SAMHSA and the National Department of Health and Human Services, Ms. Williams launched the Stories that Heal campaign, a national education and advocacy initiative. The program provides a forum for African Americans to openly share their stories about mental illness. Examples of these powerful narratives can be found at http://storiesthatheal.samhsa.gov . Terrie M. Williams is also an author of four books, the latest entitled Black pain: It just looks like we're not hurting (Scribner, 2009). In the spirit of ground-breaking advances, such as those championed by Terrie Williams, I would like to recognize the accomplishments of the following African-Americans and their allies who helped shape this nation's proud heritage:

• Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), was an African American physician and surgeon who developed our ability to store mass quantities of blood plasma in what is known today as a blood bank. During the early years of World War II, Dr. Drew directed and managed blood-plasma programs that saved the lives of countless injured soldiers. Although the issues surrounding Dr. Drew's death are widely debated, many claim that he died of injuries sustained in a car accident because he was not able to benefit from his own invention when he was taken to a whites only hospital.

• In 1821, Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent. His invention? Dry cleaning. Jennings used the money he earned to buy his relatives' freedom from slavery and support abolition movements.

• Sophia B. Packard and Harriet Giles, two white women who believed that all women should have access to education, founded Spelman College with $100. Spelman, the oldest historically Black Liberal Arts College for women in the United States, was established in 1881 in Atlanta, Georgia.

• Phillis Wheatley was a mere child) and spoke no English when she was kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in Boston around the age of eight years old. However, by the age of 16, under the tutelage of her "owners," Wheatley had mastered the language. She subsequently wrote and published Poems on Various Subjects in 1773, making her the first African American woman to be published (albeit in England).

• In 1954, Barbara Jordan was on the all-Black Texas Southern University debate team when they tied with the Harvard debate team. She would later utilize her extraordinary oratorical skills to become the first African American Congresswoman to be elected from the Deep South (1972). The TSU debate team followed in the footsteps of another Texas debate team, that of Wiley College. A 2007 movie, entitled The Great Debaters, was based on Wiley College's unlikely victory over the 1935 defending National Debate Champions of the University of Southern California (depicted as Harvard University in the movie). Although Wiley's victory would not have been recognized as legitimate in the racist climate of 1935, their recorded win against the national champs is no less remarkable. As if the odds against them weren't high enough, both debate teams contained female members, and thereby had to contend with widespread sexism as well as racism.

• Dr. William Hinton (1883-1959), an African American Physician, is credited with creating a test to detect the disease of Syphilis in 1927. The test set the stage for early diagnosis and treatment of the contagious disease. Dr. Hinton was also the first African American professor to teach at Harvard Medical School.

• From 1932-1972, 399 impoverished African American sharecroppers were allowed to live, and, in many cases, die with untreated Syphilis in what became known as the "Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" in Tuskegee, Alabama. Run by the United States Public Health Service, researchers used their human victims to study the course of the disease. Unwitting participants in the study were cut-off from available treatment options and information about the disease. In light of Dr. Hinton's discovery, mentioned above, the morally reprehensible "experiment" was particularly ironic. Victims of the study included wives and children of the experimental group who contracted Syphilis. After the Syphilis Experiment was ended in 1972 due to a leak to the local press, the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) was established, and a new Federal regulation passed requiring Institutional Review Boards (charged with ensuring that research involving human subjects is ethical).

• Juxtaposed against the study entailed above, another so-called "experiment" took place in Tuskegee, Alabama in the 1940's. Unlike the former study, the subjects of this study knew exactly what they were getting into. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American pilots who were trained to fly combat missions in World War II. In further contrast to the earlier Tuskegee experiments, the Tuskegee Airmen were hugely successful, shooting down a total of 112 enemy aircraft in flight and helping the U.S. secure significant victories in air combat. In the segregated military of WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen also made strides in the battle raging in the country for which they were fighting, a battle for equality. The recently released movie Red Tails tells the story of the Airmen.

Having shared just a few of the hundreds of thousands of stories on African American Life and History, I'd like to wish all of you, our readers, an informed, thoughtful, and warm February 2012!




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