MENTAL HEALTH: African Americans Need Better Care
Alvin Poussaint, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and co-author of Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans, is "on a mission" to solve what he calls a "mental health problem" and a "public health crisis" -- the disproportionately high number of suicides and homicides among African Americans. In a Washington Post health column, Abigail Trafford profiles Poussaint's goal of building a "system of mental health services that is responsive to the unique needs of African Americans." Trafford describes Poussaint's unique definition of suicide, which includes "slow motion suicide" -- an ongoing pattern of self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse, that gradually leads to illness and death; and homicide, which Poussaint feels is related to suicide. "If your life is already devalued, you can devalue the lives of other people. That makes it easier to pull the trigger," Poussaint says. Trafford writes that "the suicide rate among young black men has doubled since 1980," adding that homicide, suicide and accidents are the leading causes of death among young black men. Poussaint theorizes that these high statistics can be attributed to a higher rate of self-destruction among African Americans, "due to a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder" he calls "post-traumatic slavery syndrome." The persistence of "racism, poverty, discrimination and lack of quality health services" puts African Americans at risk for "a profound sense of hopelessness and isolation" -- the psychological characteristics of suicide, according to Trafford.
Reversing the Trend
Trafford writes that Poussaint's concerns are also those of Surgeon General David Satcher, who has made mental health care a top priority. Satcher advocates "quality mental health services for minorities," which involves "developing community-based programs that are geared to African Americans and other minorities ... retraining professionals to be more sensitive to cultural issues ... increasing the number of minority psychiatrists and psychologists ... [and] drawing on the strengths of the African American community -- extended family networks and the church -- to deal with the stigma of mental illness." Poussaint is "optimistic" that suicidal behavior among African Americans can be remedied with "good mental health care," Trafford writes, as in the past "minorities have gotten lousy psychiatric care, if they get any at all" (Trafford, Washington Post, 10/24).