By Burney Simpson
WASHINGTON—-A one-year effort to change negative attitudes in the black community toward those with mental health problems began at a Howard University forum last week with a kick off of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign.
A panel of psychiatrists and researchers agreed that negative attitudes can make it more difficult for African Americans to seek and receive treatment for their mental health problems.
Several panelists said one answer may be the M3, a five-to-10-minute questionnaire that can indicate whether the patient is suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or has substance abuse issues.
Mental health issues often lead to other health issues, said panelist Dr. William B. Lawson, chairman of Howard’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“Behavioral health is a major contributor to other health disparities. It leads to vehicle accidents, AIDS, homicide, and substance abuse,” Lawson said. “And those with depression are more likely to have a heart attack, have diabetes, and show a greater risk for breast cancer and stroke.”
When faced with stress, African Americans are more likely to self-medicate with drugs, overeat and engage in other unhealthy behavior, the panelists noted. In contrast, whites are more likely to seek professional treatment.
The launch of the one-year effort by the Howard University Graduate School seeks more acceptance for mental health treatment among minorities, including a focus on the African-American community, a group disproportionately affected by mental health issues.
A U.S. Surgeon General study in 1999 found mental health issues impacted about 21 percent of the U.S. population across racial and ethnic lines.
However, a 2001 supplement to the study found that minorities were less likely to receive mental health services, and that minorities that were receiving mental health care were receiving less adequate treatment than whites.
Factors influencing the discrepancy include cost, lack of treatment availability, and the mental-health stigma in the minority community. In addition, minority communities evidence a greater level of mistrust of mental health treatment, and they often have to overcome cultural and language differences to receive this treatment.
The supplement ‘Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity’ concluded that “racial and ethnic minorities collectively experience a greater disability burden from mental illness than do whites.”
The M3 is a 27-item questionnaire that takes five to seven minutes to complete, according to Beverlyn Settles Reaves, Ph.D., a project director and research associate with Howard’s department of psychiatry. An additional four questions address substance abuse issues.
A benefit of the M3 is that it is impartial and can reduce the clinician bias that can taint other tests.
The M3 can be installed on and conducted with a laptop computer, a smartphone or a tablet, and many patients can take it when they visit their primary care provider, says Reaves.
One panelist quipped the M3 might be called “a checkup from the neck-up.”
“A score over 33 indicates mental health issues. That’s a risk rating, not proof, but it can start a discussion with the person,” says Reaves.
Reaves has conducted the questionnaire with Howard students while manning a booth at various campus events. She invites students over to take the assessment; some sit down for the test, while some “people will move away from me,” said Reaves. “The idea is to eliminate the stigma of a mental health diagnosis. It’s quick and easy.”
Reaves said that plans call for the mental health discussion to occur on and around the Howard campus, expand to the Washington-metro area, then go national. Howard plans several more events as part of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign, including a symposium during Recovery Month in September and a TEDx special event in April 2016.
The Stamp Out Stigma campaign is being organized by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW). It reports that 25 percent of U.S. adults will face a mental illness problem in a given year, and more than 22 million people have a substance abuse disorder.
The Howard panel was led by Dr. Pamela Brewer, a practicing psychologist and host of ‘MyNDTALK with Dr. Pamela Brewer,’ a relationship/mental health program that is available nationally via the Pacifica Network of radio stations and online sites.