July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month

In 2005, Bebe Moore Campbell, national spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-LA), began a collaboration with NAMI peer Linda Wharton-Boyd that led to the launch of the first Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (MMHAM).

Here’s how Campbell described the goal and message of the first MMHAM:

“We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans. It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.”

 Her vision became a reality when the U.S. House of Representatives announced the first Bebe Moore Campbell Minority Mental Health Awareness would take place annually every July, beginning in 2008. Sponsored by Representative Albert Wynne of Maryland, the month has two primary purposes:

  1. Promote public awareness of minority mental health issues
  2. Improve access to mental health treatment and services for minorities

Those two objectives are more important now than ever.

But first, we’ll address a question you may have.

What Does BIPOC Mean?

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. According to the New York Times, the acronym first appeared in 2013. Over time – and accelerated by the recent intensification of the racial equality movement in the U.S. – it gained the attention of the various groups known as minorities. It resonated because of its inclusive nature. It also countered the misleading concept that diverse and distinct groups of humans belong in one group called minorities.

While the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have not shifted to BIPOC, we follow the lead presented by Mental Health America (MHA) here:

“People and language evolve, and Mental Health America (MHA) has chosen to remove the word ‘minority’ from our toolkit and will be phasing it out on our materials. Instead, we are using a different designation – BIPOC – that we believe more fairly honors and distinguishes the experiences of Blacks, Indigenous People, and People of Color.”

 We agree with this point of view and will use BIPOC moving forward. The breadth and inclusivity of the term speaks to both our worldview and our mission: we help all people who need help and listen when people tell us what names, terms, or acronyms they prefer.

Now, let’s move on to the details of BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month 2020.

BIPOC Mental Health Statistics

Data from every reliable source available – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), NAMI, MHA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – confirm the disproportionate prevalence of mental health issues in BIPOC populations.

Here’s a sampling of key data points:

  • African Americans are 20% more likely than non-African Americans to experience:
  • African Americans and Latinx Americans use mental health services half as often as whites.
  • Asian Americans use mental health services a third as often as whites.
  • 10.5% of young adults age 18-25 engaged in suicidal ideation:
    • 8.3% of non-Latinx African Americans
    • 9.2% of Latinx
  • 17.5% of young adults age 18-25 had a serious mental illness:
    • 7.6% of non-Latinx Asians
    • 5.7% of Latinx
    • 4.6% of non-Latinx African Americans.
  • 28.6% of people of two or more races had a mental illness, compared to 20% in the general population.
  • 8.6% of people of two or more races experienced psychological distress, compared to 3.4% for whites, 3.5% for African Americans.
  • 41.5% of youth ages 12-17 diagnosed with depression received care for a major depressive episode:
    • 35.1% of diagnosed African American youth received treatment.
    • 32.7% of diagnosed Latinx youth received treatment.

That’s a lot of data to absorb at once. We offer it all to clarify the situation. Notice two things: BIPOC populations are more vulnerable to mental health issues than non-BIPOC populations and use mental health services less often. The latter – known as the treatment gap – can be explained by the one-two punch of stigma and barriers to treatment access. However, those two factors do not explain the former: the high prevalence numbers.

That’s where the theme designated by Mental Health America (MHA) for BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month comes in: The Impact of Trauma.

BIPOC Awareness Month: #IMPACTOFTRAUMA

Current events foreground the experience of BIPOC individuals in the U.S. and identify the social, cultural, political structures that lead to an increased likelihood of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma in the BIPOC population.

In the words of NAMI CEO Daniel Gullison:

“The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored. The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored…with more than 100,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic – disproportionately from minority communities – these recent deaths add gasoline to the fire of injustice. Racism is a public health crisis. NAMI stands in solidarity with everyone impacted across the country. You are not alone.”

Trauma – and trauma experienced early in life, in particular – can have long-term negative effects across all areas of life. It can impair physical, emotional, and psychological development, increase the likelihood of developing chronic disease, and increase the likelihood of developing serious mental health disorders. Trauma can attenuate intellectual achievement, academic advancement, and is correlated with lower income and employment.

Trauma is real and its effects can be debilitating. However, there’s an aspect to trauma that many people understand intellectually, but do not always fully grasp when it comes to practical application: with professional help and support, the negative effects of trauma can be mitigated. In some cases, the negative effects of trauma can be eliminated almost entirely.

Treatment Works: Raise Awareness, End Stigma

The purpose of BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month is to increase knowledge about BIPOC mental health issues in communities across the country. This year, the message is critical. The dual effect of the coronavirus pandemic and the intensity of the movement for racial equality – as visible in the continuous protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police – means that BIPOC face increased levels of stress, anxiety, and fear. Those with preexisting mental health conditions risk an escalation of symptoms. Those without preexisting mental health conditions risk developing issues as a result of the heightened tension in communities and the constant barrage of media reports that highlight conflict and division.

In this environment, awareness that trauma is real and treatable becomes of paramount importance. BIPOC who experience trauma need to know there are people out there who understand. Further, they need to know many of those people are trained professionals who can help process the trauma the experience. When a person who experiences trauma gets treatment, they can learn to manage their symptoms, and live a life that’s not dominated by them.

That’s why we encourage everyone who reads this article to visit the Mental Health America website, download their BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month Toolkit, and do their part to raise awareness about mental health issues Black, Indigenous, and People of Color face every day.