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Addressing Mental Health in the Black Community

Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than people in the general population. Only 1 in 3 Black adults who needs mental healthcare receives it.

It’s time to address the mental health needs of Black Americans.

Rhonda M. Smith

Executive Director, California Black Health Network

That’s the message from the California Black Health Network (CBHN), the voice and trusted resource for Black health equity in California. 


Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than people in the general population. Only 1 in 3 Black adults who needs mental healthcare receives it.


CBHN — the only Black-led, statewide organization dedicated to advancing health equity for all African Americans and Black immigrants — conducts outreach, education, and advocacy with an understanding that these health issues intersect with racial, social, and environmental justice.

“If we are really to advance health equity in California, we have to address everything from birth to death and in between,” said Rhonda M. Smith, CBHN’s executive director. “As part of our outreach, education, and advocacy and policy work, we need to address the key issues that are affecting our community: access and availability, and also affordability of mental health services.”

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The pandemic, social justice issues, and politics have added more stress and mental health strain on the Black community. Smith is worried about Black teens and young people, who face a multitude of stressors, including racism, violence, sexual identity concerns, bullying, and others.

“Even before COVID, the black teenage suicide rate had significantly increased,” she said. “COVID has only exacerbated that disparity.”


Black Americans often receive poorer quality of mental healthcare than white patients. They also face barriers to getting care, including a lack of insurance or under insurance, distrust of the healthcare system, and a lack of providers who come from a diverse background, as well as a lack of culturally competent mental health providers.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) says Black people may be more likely than other people to experience physical symptoms, such as bodily aches and pains, that are related to their mental health. But a healthcare provider who is not culturally competent may not recognize physical pain as a sign of a mental health condition, such as depression.


Stigma is a factor, too. “Mental health can be seen as a sign of weakness,” Smith said.

She says the Black community often sees taking care of mental health as something white people do. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed and try to “tough it out and make it through.” But Smith encourages the Black community not to ignore their mental health.

“Not dealing with whatever mental health issues, or just the challenge of walking through this world every day can be difficult for a lot of people, and stress adds to it,” said Smith, who wants people to know that if they have health insurance, their mental health services are included in that coverage.


CBHN is actively fighting stigma pertaining to mental health services in Black communities in California; advocating for policies that increase access to culturally responsive mental health treatment; and supporting state and local investments toward community-based organizations that provide community mental health services.

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The organization is working in Alameda, Sacramento, and San Joaquin counties to address mental health disparities. CBHN has also created toolkits for each of those communities, focused on the state of mental health in that county and the resources that are available locally.

“We’re really trying to have a better connection between the mental health departments, which are part of the public health departments in those counties, and the community so there is more connection to the community to provide resources that people otherwise wouldn’t know about,” Smith said.

Their series, CBHN Perspectives, which addresses health, economic, social, and policy issues impacting Black communities in California, is preparing a report on mental health in the Black community. 

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