Dr. Imani Walker on the Black community and mental health: ‘We’re programmed to disguise our pain because of slavery'

·3-min read

Mental health in the Black community is concerning, says Dr. Imani Walker. From COVID-19 to high-profile police killings of unarmed individuals, recent events have taken a toll. 

"The state of mental health in the Black community is pretty dire," she says. "Despite the fact that we are actually really good at putting on a game face, we were dealing with higher rates of mental illness in general, compared to whites, we are five times more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness in this country. It could be depression, anxiety. Some of us may also be dealing with things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black people are more likely than whites to experience feelings of emotional distress. Dr. Imani notes that financial stressors and social stressors like racism can be huge factors when it comes to mental health struggles in the Black community. Unfortunately, only one in three will receive help. 

"We've actually been really good at disguising our pain for hundreds of years, we're programmed to disguise our pain because of slavery, the master of the plantation or the mistress of the plantation. Look, they gave us these rags ... [and] awful [food] to eat and we were told that we should be grateful for that. And I think that has extended down the line [for] 400 years, all the way up until now. Just because we were used to things not being the best, doesn't mean that we still should be living at a base level of things being tolerable. We should expect more of ourselves and more for ourselves as well," she explains.

A 2013 study showed that 63 percent of Black Americans believed that a mental condition is a sign of weakness, which has caused long-standing stigma around mental health. But Dr. Imani, who considers herself an introvert, is not afraid to talk about her own struggles with anxiety and depression and the importance of getting help, especially during the pandemic this last year. 

"I definitely have sought out therapy for myself. I've definitely gotten my medication adjusted. Any type of mental illness that isolation may have exacerbated, whether it's substance abuse, eating disorder, binge eating disorder, whether it's being a victim of abuse or maybe being an abuser. All of those are situations where increased isolation is going to make the situation worse."

Dr. Imani advises that it is important that Black people talk to each other, especially their families to help fight stigma in the community. She adds that there also needs to be more access to mental health services for those that need it.

"I've actually been seeing the majority, if not all of my patients via telemedicine, via telepsychiatry and that's been really helpful because there are people, maybe their nearest clinic is three hours away," she continues. "I was able to use the time that I did have this particular spotlight when I was on married to medicine LA, to make sure that I did get the message out that like, Hey, I'm a black psychiatrist. This is what we look like. This is what we sound like. We do care about you. It was always about for me about making sure that people who looked like me were able to use the tools that I've learned to be able to better themselves."

Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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