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Black History Month: Mental Health Stigma

A Bit of History

In the mid-1800s up until the early 1900s, leading psychiatrists claimed Black people were unfit psychologically for freedom. Samuel Cartwright, a physician in the 1800s created two diagnoses, “drapetomania” and “dysaesthesia,” which were used to label Black people with a motive of keeping them oppressed. 

The Butterfly Effect

Racial disparities in the mental health care system are well documented, and while Black Americans report more persistent problems with emotional health, they face more barriers to receiving care. In fact, less than half of Black Americans with serious mental health conditions received treatment, according to the CDC. While some of this is due to embedded prejudice in health care systems, there is also significant stigma surrounding mental health challenges and seeking help in Black communities. Research has shown that Black men especially believe that depression and anxiety would be seen as “crazy” in their community, and expressing these issues shows weakness. Stories like Cartwright’s can perpetuate a belief that seeking out help can cause more harm than good. By instead uplifting stories of Black people that have contributed, innovated, and made a huge impact on health care, we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health care.

Building a Better Future

Much of Black history we learn in school or in textbooks looks like the first paragraph of this blog. The positive, impactful, innovative history of Black Americans is largely erased or minimized to the struggles, but let’s not reduce Black people to the struggles of their past this Black History Month. Instead, let’s uplift names like Marsha P. Johnson, who helped make LGBTQ+ pride celebrations what they are today. Or Bebe Moore Campbell, whose writings about the experience of Black women led to the founding of Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month each July. Or Frederick McKinley Jones, whose invention led to refrigeration allowing medicines to be stored safely.

When we bury Black voices in the history of oppression, we minimize the actual Black voices who have made a real difference in mental health in America. So, this Black History Month (and every single day) uplift Black artists, creators, politicians, journalists, and analysts. Uplift Black voices.


If you or someone you know is in need of emotional support, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. 

Text or call 988 or chat online at to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

To have Mobile Crisis Response dispatched to any location in Johnson or Iowa County, call Your Life Iowa at 855-581-8111 and ask for mobile crisis. 

Both services are free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.