Crisis in North Tulsa: Systemic Racism and its Effect on Black Mental Health

by Contributing Writer Shalon R. Youngblood

People with mental illness are often left to deteriorate until their actions provoke a police response, which has occurred all too often in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On August 24, 2018, Joshua Harvey, an unarmed black man in the midst of an active mental health crisis, was tased 25 times by two officers because he ran into a building. He later died of his injuries. According to the officers’ report, they felt that if the taser had not been deployed, the incident would not have been resolved in a timely manner.  A mental health professional was not on the scene nor had one been contacted. A mental health professional could have educated the police on the fact that deescalating someone in a mental health crisis is not something that can always be resolved in a short period of time. On June 9, 2017, Joshua Barre was shot and killed by police while carrying two knives inside of a convenience store while experiencing an active mental health crisis. He had walked nearly a mile before arriving at the store without them intervening.  Two of the three police officers that killed him worked on the department’s mental health crisis unit. One had been with the unit for nearly 20 years. They had attempted to pick Barre up three times prior on a court-ordered warrant but were unsuccessful. They were familiar with Barre and his conditions. However, throughout these four encounters, they never contacted a mental health professional for assistance or guidance.  

Lack of treatment for mental illness leads to being overrepresented in deadly encounters with law enforcement and in every aspect of the criminal justice system. According to a study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.  Numbering fewer than 1 in 50 adults, individuals with untreated mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4, and as many as half, of all fatal police shootings. Community activist, Chief Amusan, even highlighted that “social determinants are a side effect of systemic racism” following a discussion on the use of disparities and racially biased policing with Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum.  

Systemic racism is the leading cause of mental illness in the black community.  There is often a correlation between racism, depression, and anxiety in black people and there has been a link identified between racism and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. To live in North Tulsa is to live with the traumatic history of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and destruction of Black Wall Street. People in North Tulsa live with the social determinants of underfunded schools, poorly built environment, and social exclusion.  This leads to reduced options, high-risk behaviors, and stress that ultimately leads to poor mental health, disease, and morbidity. 

In addition to our environment being a breeding ground for developing mental illness, there is also a deep cultural stigma and silence surrounding mental illness in the black community.  Black people’s reluctance to discuss mental illness is driven in part by the complex and traumatic history of blacks in the United States. It is as if our suffering is normal and the expected outcome given our history from slavery to present. We often think of serious mental illness as only being severe psychiatric diagnoses. However, depression, anxiety, and stress disorders are some of the more prevalently diagnosed in the black community. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, black people are 20% more likely to experience psychological distress than the general population due to psychosocial factors.   

The stigma of mental health in the black community also affects accessing resources for assistance.  According to a study published in the International Journal of Health Services, black people are 20% more likely to experience mental illness but only 25% seek mental health services compared to 40% of whites.  Being strong is valued and because of this, we often don’t have access to conversations about psychological struggles within our own families or community.  Black people are more likely to turn to prayer, church, spirituality, family, and community instead of a mental health professional. In some instances, individuals can resort to self-medicating or isolating themselves, which exacerbates the issues.  In order to avoid normalizing it, we have to be educated on proper medical terms such as depression that we often refer to as tired, exhausted and sad. Mental health issues in the black community are often not considered to be medical issues but character flaws, signs of weakness, or purely private matters.  This sense of shame and embarrassment reflects the social stigma of mental health in our community.

Some of the other challenges affecting the black community accessing resources for mental health are that many services aren’t located in close proximity to where people of color are and many professionals simply don’t know how to diagnose black people properly.  Black men and women continue to be grossly underrepresented in the mental health workforce. According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), only 3.7 % of members in the American Psychiatric Association and 1.5% of members in the American Psychological Association are black. The large gaps in median household income between blacks and whites also makes it more difficult for black people to have access to the same mental health treatment as their counterparts.  

Once blacks seek and obtain treatment, the stigma and discrimation doesn’t stop there.  In Dr. J. Corey Williams’ book Black Americans Don’t Trust Our Healthcare System – Here’s Why, he explores those stigmas in more detail.  He states that the marginalization of black people takes place at every level of the contemporary medical system.  In his work as a psychiatrist, he observed differential treatment of patients based on race and ethnicity. He had observed hospital staff insist that certain black patients were dangerous and required the use of four-point restraints, which meant that each of their limbs would be strapped to the bed.  He found that black people with mental health diagnoses are less likely to receive certain medicines for their conditions compared to whites with the same conditions. Blacks are less likely to be prescribed newer, better-tolerated medicines, such as atypical antipsychotics, and tend to be offered older medications with worse side effects.  

In order to effectively address the stigma of mental illness in the black community, there must be a greater understanding that just because a history of trauma left black people with a high tolerance for emotional pain doesn’t mean, at some point, we won’t break. 

Illustration: Patrick Norman