Black West Virginians Are At A Unique Disadvantage When It Comes To Mental Health
Barriers that impact mental health for Black West Virginians include a scarcity of Black mental health professionals and mental health resources, stigma, lack of proper mental health education, and more. Black therapists discuss how we can change the culture surrounding mental health.
M ental health is defined as an individual's emotional, psychological, or social well-being. Mental health impacts every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), approximately 21% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness, 5.6% of U.S. adults experienced severe mental illness, and 6.7% of U.S. adults experienced a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness in 2020. Additionally, 16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2016.
The African American community, in particular, suffers from an increased rate of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression. The department of psychiatry at Columbia University, reported that African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems, such as Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Additionally, young Black adults (ages 18-25) also experience higher rates of mental health problems and lower mental health resource utilization rates than young white adults and older Black adults.
Data also indicates that West Virginia consistently rates among states with the highest percentage of people experiencing mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In a ranking of America's healthiest communities by U.S. News and World Report, West Virginia was reported as having one of the nation's highest rates of deaths of despair which include fatalities attributed to suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related disease.
In the healthiest communities ranking, counties received a mental health score. The average score among West Virginia counties was approximately 28 out of 100. The five lowest-scoring counties for mental health were all in West Virginia.
Like many Black communities in the United States, West Virginia's poor mental health stems from a complex mix of problems, including high poverty rates and substance abuse and a culture of independence that stigmatizes psychological help. Due to this troubling data, many Black mental health professionals in West Virginia believe that Black West Virginians are at a significant disadvantage when dealing with mental health issues than their white counterparts or even black counterparts from other states.
"I would generally say that Appalachians are at a unique disadvantage. And then under that, African Americans would be a little bit more disadvantaged. Number one because for some of them, there's still a stigma attached to seeking out mental health, the availability of affordable mental health, anything to deal with them getting there, and working around a work schedule, a family schedule, all those things," says Maureen Dillard, school counselor at West Virginia Schools of Diversion and Transitions.
Some barriers that impact mental health for Black West Virginians include a scarcity of Black mental health professionals and mental health resources, stigma, lack of proper mental health education, poverty, racism, substance abuse, and incarceration.
William Berkeley, the owner of Recovery U, a Black-owned, male-only substance abuse treatment center, says that substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses are co-occurring issues for many clients. However, the stigma surrounding therapy, drug use, and incarceration often prevent many people from getting the mental and physical health services they need. For African Americans, it's even more difficult because those who have been convicted of drug-related crimes don't have the same opportunities to receive treatment as their white counterparts.
"I think a lot of people with mental illness don't get diagnosed, and they don't even know they have mental illness or don't care they got mental illness. Then they go to substances to offset that mental illness, it makes them feel better, or they don't have the capacity not to use these substances in some kind of way…I think the judicial system is a little bit at fault, in that I think blacks don't get the same opportunities to come to treatment, as much as the white criminal defendants might get to come to treatment," Berkely says.
Despite the prevalence of substance abuse in West Virginia, the lack of Black mental health professionals, resources, and mental health education seems to be the biggest concern for Gina Ogwude, Owner and CEO of West Virginia Family Support & Rehabilitation.
"I think West Virginians, in general, are at a disadvantage because of lack of resources, lack of professionals in the area… It's hard for West Virginia to even attract professionals, and then you break it down into minority professionals. That's even twice as hard because, first of all, minorities, especially black Americans, make up such a small percentage of the population, to begin with. Then to find maybe a very small percentage, of an already small percentage, that went to college to be able to provide mental health services. That's even harder," Ogwude says.
Ogwude believes that to address many of the mental health barriers that impact the lives of Black West Virginians, we must educate ourselves and our peers on the realities of mental health.
Ogwude says that providers, especially, have a responsibility to foster a relationship with the communities they're serving and normalize seeking help. Providers, especially white providers, also have a responsibility to educate themselves on the communities they serve to help clients whose backgrounds differ from their own.
"I guess by making our services available, and making sure I'm bringing awareness to the community that we're here, especially as African American therapists, because there's so few of us out there, that a lot of people in the community don't even know we exist... So you know, we have a responsibility as professionals to reach out to the community that needs us...A lot of ways we could do that: visiting schools, visiting churches, involving ourselves in community activities, bringing awareness to our availability," Ogwude advises.
Dr. Kristi Williams Dumas, a forensic psychologist and owner of Dumas Psychology Center agrees that stigma and a lack of black mental health providers are two of the most prevalent barriers that impact Black West Virginians from seeking mental health treatment. Dumas uses her TikTok account (@unstuckpsychologists) as a platform to spread mental health awareness. MEET DR. DUMAS ON TWITTER
"So the number one thing that impacts the Black community is the stigma behind mental health and getting mental health services, we definitely need to start normalizing people not being in the best mental health state, and we need to normalize people getting help. So that is the biggest barrier to healing and treatment in the black community is the stigma that is on mental health and receiving services. The other thing that I think is very challenging is the fact that in southern West Virginia, we have very few practitioners of color," Dumas explains.
Dumas traces the history of mental health stigma in the Black communities back to slavery. Historically, Black Americans have been brutalized and disenfranchised in this country, which has created a shared generational trauma which impacts how we deal with emotional issues to this day.
"I think it comes from slavery and before where we were not treated as human beings. So we were socialized, to not feel to not acknowledge pain...We were socialized to suck it up…So we, for generations, have been crippled in terms of being able to appropriately express our feelings and our emotions. And so we keep that locked up inside, and poor mental health turns into poor physical health. And so I think that it is something that we've been socialized with and expected to do for years. And now that we're to the place where we realize just how mentally impaired and physically unhealthy it is. We don't know what to do about it or how to go about it the right way," Dumas says.
In addition, the Black church has historically been a significant proponent of mental health stigma. Prayer and unwavering faith in God are often the answers to mental health struggles within the Black community.
"You will hear preachers and pastors get up over the pulpit, ‘you don't need that psychotropic medication, you know, you don't need that medication. All you need is Jesus.' No, pray to Jesus while you take that medication. But so many times, our leaders and our places of worship also perpetuate the stigma of mental health...and that needs to stop, we have to, again, normalize people having faith, but also needing help," Dumas continues.
However, Rev. James Patterson, CEO of Partnership of African American Church (PAAC), says it is possible for spiritual counseling and clinical treatment to work in tandem.
"We ought to start accepting and putting systems in place in the congregation to help people with that. And the first thing is, is that we accept and we let it be known and published in the congregation, that we accept the fact that there are mental health problems. And this is our system or our process, in this congregation, in terms of helping a congregant, or church member, deal with the mental health challenge," Patterson says.
PAAC operates a prevention and recovery wellness center on Charleston's west side and a Women's Residential Facility in Institute, WV. Through his work with PAAC and his experience as a minister, Patterson says that he has witnessed how religion and psychology can work together to address an individual's needs.
"There are Christian therapists. There are therapists that go at therapy from a Christian or from a faith-based perspective. So the minimum thing that the church could do would be to know who those therapists are, know who those mental health practitioners are, and have a referral system for the congregation," Patterson states.
Despite her reservations, Dumas agreed that the church could work with mental health professionals in dealing with the psychological issues that may affect their parishioners, provided that the clergy receives the proper training.
"I do think partnerships and those types of coalitions are needed. They can be a huge benefit to the community, as long as people are trained to do the work," Dumas states.
Patterson agrees with the other mental health professionals that normalizing mental illness is the most significant step we can take as a community to address mental health concerns.
"I think a lot of it has to do with education within the community itself. It has to do as well with us, encouraging our young people to go into this discipline as a professional. And then it has to do with us being accepting of our own folks, and helping them and trying to provide some services for them because we understand the culture, we understand the history," Patterson explains.
Despite the potential progress that normalization could make towards eradicating stigma, West Virginia still does not have the amount of mental health resources to meet the needs of its people. Dumas credits the shortage of resources to the decisions made by our state legislature.
"We are fighting against the state legislature who does not have black people in the forefront of their agenda. In fact, I know delegates who have dismissed some of the bills that would affect, very proportionately affect—black people. And have decided that they're not important because there's not enough of us here," Dumas says.
Below is a list of active mental health resources for Black West Virginians, including Black-owned behavioral health agencies or agencies that employ Black therapists. The list also includes some non-traditional therapeutic resources. For more information or to add a resource to this list, please email Haadiza@gmail.com.
Black-Owned Behavioral Health Agencies and Treatment Centers
Location: Beckley, WV
Address: The Brain Training Center 129 Main Street Suite 407 Beckley, WV 25801
Location: Parkersburg, WV
Address: 214 East 8th Street, Parkersburg, West Virginia 26101, United States
Address: 1303 Washington Street West, Charleston, West Virginia, 25302, United States
Location: Saint Albans, West Virginia
Address: 6404 Maccorkle Ave SW, Saint Albans, West Virginia 25177, United States
Location: Cross Lanes, WV
Address: 5257 Big Tyler Rd Cross Lanes, WV 25313
Location: Parkersburg, WV
Address: 300 Star Ave Suite 321, Parkersburg, WV 26101
Location: Charleston, WV
Address: 1514 Kanawha Blvd. West Charleston, WV 25387
Location: Morgantown, WV
Address: 300 Wedgewood Drive Morgantown, WV 26505
Location: Kearneysville, WV
Address: 179 E Burr Blvd Suite L Kearneysville, WV 25430
Location: Martinsburg, WV
Address: 142 N Queen Street Martinsburg, WV 25401
Behavioral Health Agencies with Black Mental Health Professionals
Location: Fairmont, WV
Address: 207 Fairmont Avenue Fairmont, WV 26554
Location: Saint Albans, WV
Address: 200 Kanawha Terrace, Suites 1 & 2 St. Albans, WV 25177
Non-Traditional Mental Health Resources
Location: Green Spring, WV
Location: Charleston, WV
Address: 3511 Noyes Avenue, Charleston, West Virginia 25304
Description: Offers two “Me Time” services. The “Girl Listeeeen… Please?” is a one-hour and thirty-minute non-disclosure session where customers are allowed a safe space to vent feelings of frustration, gratitude, anger, resentment, joy, or indifference. This service also includes a basic scalp massage, shampoo, and style. Customers can also purchase a one-hour session called “Just Sit here For a Minute” to just sit and mentally unwind.
Location: Online/Telehealth only
Location: Online/Telehealth only
Description: We’ve made it our mission to strip away that stigmatization and ease the process of finding help, by providing targeted resources and a database filled with professionals equipped to support men of color, our users can now obtain the help they need and deserve.
Description: A guide on how to seek culturally competent care and for information on more mental health resources
Description: BEAM is a national training, movement building, and grant making institution that is dedicated to the healing, wellness, and liberation of Black and marginalized communities.
Description: Provides information and resources and a “Find a Therapist” locator to connect with a culturally competent mental health professional.
Description: Organization advancing health equity and social justice for Black women through policy, advocacy, education, research and leadership development.
Description: Provides information on promoting mental health and developing positive coping mechanisms through a podcast, online magazine and online discussion groups.
Description: Online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of Black women and girls. Offers listing of mental health professionals across the country who provide high quality, culturally competent services to Black women and girls, an informational podcast and an online support community.
Haadiza Ogwude is a recent graduate of the double master's degree program in journalism and global mass communication from Ohio University and Universität Leipzig. She is from Parkersburg, WV, where she currently resides. She is related to Gina Ogwude, CEO and owner of West Virginia Family Support & Rehabilitation Services, who was quoted in the article. Black By God The West Virginian seeks to disclose this information in an effort to uphold our values of journalistic integrity and transparency.
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