Mental Health Awareness Month: Addressing Underdiscussed Mental Health Issues in the Black Community

When Amanda Seales revealed in her much-discussed interview with Shannon Sharpe that she had autism––an assessment she soon elaborated that was a self-diagnosis, the reactions were swift and not all kind. To be sure, many a doctor will tell you that it’s unwise and unhelpful to determine we have a condition based on our own research, and while Seales’ personal health situation is nobody’s business but hers, she did open the door to a wider conversation. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time devoted to expanding education about mental health issues and reducing stigma. And while Black Americans are steadily overcoming long-standing barriers and stigmas about getting mental health care, we still have a ways to go. Practically everybody knows a little bit about anxiety, depression, and maybe even generational trauma. However, there are more conditions, such as autism, that still aren’t discussed as much, let alone diagnosed, in the Black community. Here are some mental health conditions that Black therapists say could use greater understanding and acceptance of. 


Research about autism, especially in adults, is growing. Still, in the general sense, autism is a broad range of conditions that can include challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication, according to the group Autism Speaks. It’s typically diagnosed in children –– about 1 in 36 have it, although reported cases have increased over the years –– but, since it’s a broad spectrum in itself, understanding what it looks like in adults is growing too. Research also says it’s more common among Black and Hispanic kids, making it all the more reason to increase education about it and reduce stigma in our community. “We have not been informed about it, or don’t know what that is, and I’ve seen our elders that a child is being rude or misbehaving,” says Dr. Thema Bryant, a psychologist. “So they can respond in this harsh way; they might say the parents don’t have good control over their child.” She cites an example of an autistic girl in church who put her hands over her ears and was rocking back and forth when the choir got really loud since autism can present as sensory issues. “Some of the mothers of the church start trying to reprimand her, thinking it’s offensive for her to cover up her ears while the choir is singing. So the awareness raising piece is so important, not only to think about it for families themselves, but for our community, so we can respond with compassionate support.” 

Vernon and Venice Moore, Black therapists based in Connecticut, say they’re seeing more Black parents at least open to hearing about potential autism in their children, yet most haven’t been ready to go at it with a full-force plan. And Vernon says that, as with Seales, he’s seen more adults self-diagnosing themselves with it, which he doesn’t recommend. “As the mental health conversation has become a little less taboo, people are seeing traits and symptoms, and characteristics of autism, and then say, ‘Well, that’s me.’ But there are traits and characteristics and symptoms of all types of mental health challenges that we all experienced, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re at a diagnosis of it. You have to be careful with that because if we look at somebody who really does have autism, versus somebody who has self diagnosed, their functioning in challenges are probably a lot different.” 


ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is another condition that’s commonly misunderstood and erroneously self-diagnosed; we’ve all heard someone say, “I’m so ADHD” because they misplaced their keys. But, as with autism, ADHD can manifest in many varying ways (although difficulty concentrating and fidgeting often are some hallmarks). ADHD often comes with emotional challenges, problems regulating mood, reckless behavior, and impulsivity, from blurting out things at inappropriate times to taking needless risks.  Black people are significantly more likely not to be diagnosed, as an article in Howard University’s magazine notes. The Moores say awareness is increasing, although much more learning needs to happen, and they often hesitate to treat it. Vernon says that among people with an ADHD loved one, frustration can set in. “Those with ADHD really do have the mindset of trying to do everything to the best of their ability. But other people may not have had patience with someone who’s struggling with ADHD. And if that’s not something that’s talked about, or something that somebody knows, then that can lead to conflict.” Venice says she often sees Black clients skeptical of medication. “When it comes to medication [professional of color in her office], it’s often like, ‘Hey, you’re not alone in this,’ and letting them know you can try [medication]. It doesn’t mean that something’s wrong with you. It’s just something that could support you.” 

Borderline Personality Disorder  

“In the last few years,” says Venice, “there’s more conversation around gaslighting, narcissistic behavior, and personality disorder. It’s out there without really having the understanding behind it––it’s something you see in Lifetime movies.” Of all the under-discussed mental health issues out there, borderline personality disorder is certainly one of the more stigmatized; it’s one of the conditions people might unkindly lump in the realm of “crazy” without understanding what’s really going on. It can manifest as ​​emotional instability, impulsivity, wide-ranging swings in mood, explosive anger, and sudden infatuation with others, only to abandon those feelings quickly. Venice says this can look like bipolar disorder, but with talk therapy and counseling, patients can get an accurate diagnosis and help. “Truth be told, it is in our community,” she says. “And I’ve had few clients with borderline personality disorder who just weren’t aware that this is actually what they had. Once we dive into really what was happening and what the behaviors look like, it is different from bipolar disorder.” 

All these issues, therapists say, can be treated to help a person heal and thrive, but you can’t fix what you can’t address. So that’s why everyone must show compassion to people struggling, including ourselves, without stigma or shame and seek professional support if needed. “The people in your life are a mirror,” she says. “They show you you. Your behaviors are going to show up, whether you’re diagnosed or not, so don’t be resistant. Look at it like, ‘Ok, I’m finally showing up and getting the help I need.’” 

Some resources for help 

Need some help? Here are a few resources to get support. 

Black Therapists Rock 

Therapy for Black Men 

Therapy for Black Girls 

Therapy in Color 

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