Michael K. Williams and the Mental Health Debacle in Black Communities
Mental health remains a taboo topic across global communities, but changes in workplace policies can optimize mental health and overall wellbeing especially -- for Black men and other medically underserved minorities
In my first Entrepreneur article, I reflected on lessons learned from a workplace healthcare perspective following the abrupt death of the great Black actor Chadwick Boseman. Sadly, one year later, yet another great Black actor, Michael K. Williams, shockingly passed away at the age of 54. His death showcases the perils of mental health issues and the continued need for destigmatization, particularly in Black communities.
History repeating itself
HBO’s The Wire is constantly on the top 10 lists of best all-time television series and is a personal favorite of mine for several reasons. First, the quality of actors such as the late Williams, who played Omar, portrayed a remarkably realistic portrait of inner city communities.
Secondly, the series showcased a delicate balance between grittiness and humanity. In other words, it showed the mental anguish that people, primarily African Americans, face in inner city communities and the seemingly futile attempt to better oneself against all odds. Third, the series showcased what is endemic in virtually all societies: The misguided belief that men are at their best when they display little-to-no vulnerability and are even keeled with no outbursts of anxiety, depression or any extreme emotion — i.e. “the strong, silent type.”
The challenge with repressing emotions is that the repressed anger or frustration can be activated in seemingly mundane situations. In addition, the ability to properly manage emotions is integral to our success as human beings. Unfortunately, many Black people do not have the resources or network that can support them without judgment or persecution. Furthermore, many people have been incarcerated, lost their jobs, families and lives or even succumbed to substance abuse because of crippling mental health issues.
Mental health: A global taboo topic
Growing up in West Africa, mental health was considered a taboo subject and a sign of weakness, especially for men. But even here in the U.S., mental health is not as prioritized as physical health in the workplace and our communities. Minorities, especially African Americans, are less likely than white people to seek treatment for conditions such as anxiety and are also more likely to prematurely end treatment, per data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Furthermore, cultural sensitivity is very important in mental health, especially for Black men, because it’s crucial for patients to feel that their provider understands their identity and can give them the best possible support and care. Consequently, there is a need for significant investment in resources for mental health care in medically underserved areas.
Fortunately, the pandemic has slowed down travel and socialization and forced all of us to embrace the screens of our computers and mobile devices as the ultimate connectivity tool. So even though face-to-face communication remains the gold standard, more and more people are embracing digital tools for daily engagement and education. In fact, telehealth use is almost 40 times higher today than pre-pandemic, with the most significant usage in psychiatry and substance abuse treatment, based on a recent McKinsey & Company report.
Despite what we know about the pervasive nature of mental health issues, it is still fairly rare to find workplaces where mental health days are understood and not punitive. Unfortunately, the underlying assumption is that employees will take advantage of these mental health days, resulting in a culture of laziness and reduced productivity.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that anxiety and depressive disorders cost more than $1 trillion in lost productivity globally each year. Hence, by investing in proper mental health management, employers simultaneously reward their employees and themselves by prioritizing overall health and wellbeing.
Bridging the mental health divide
Digital health is a bridge that can increase recruitment and engagement, especially for minority populations. Fortunately, the high usage of smartphones by racial minorities will help to increase access and adoption of personalized digital tools. For example, apps like iBreathe can help with stress management, and MindShift CBT uses psychotherapy techniques to help with anxiety management. However, it is important to ensure that African Americans and other minorities are included in clinical trials and device/app testing prior to product and technology rollout. We can’t simply assume that digital therapeutics or traditional drugs work for all people without testing for safety and effectiveness in a sub-sample that is not representative of the indigenous population at large. Of note, despite higher use of smart watches by minority populations, limited health literacy and high distrust limit the benefit of digital solutions
Diversity, equity and inclusion are buzzwords these days, but it will take time before changes made in the past year have measurable impact. Digital health is considered a bridge that can help increase patient recruitment and engagement, especially for minority populations. It is imperative that the voices of minorities are heard and that minority communities are equipped with educational resources. Knowledge is power, and it is important to create more effective, tailored communication strategies to overcome barriers such as mistrust, access and fear of human experimentation in African American communities.
Corporate social responsibility initiatives can play a role here by supporting activities that are aimed at reducing inequities in access to professional care and digital health tools that can provide real-time support. For example, sponsoring training programs for more Black mental health professionals is important, because people generally feel more comfortable receiving care from people who look like them. Mental health tends to be severely overlooked when it comes to funding, and increased investments in research and care provision will help to increase public attention.
Increased transparency amid Covid-19
It is empowering to see several high-profile celebrities and athletes share their struggles with mental health issues, which showcases their humanity and enables a greater degree of connectivity with their global audience. Employers regardless of size, industry or geographical location have the potential to transform mental health by mandating policies that can facilitate increased flexibility, transparency and cohesion in the workplace. For example, there is no federal law mandating that employers provide bereavement leave. Given that minorities are more likely to be less educated and make less than their white counterparts, they are also more likely to work in lower paying jobs that might not be as tolerant when it comes to mental health issues.
In closing, the psychosocial burden of mental health is endemic in all societies regardless of socioeconomic status. However, African American communities continue to disproportionately suffer from mental health issues due to limited resources, including adequate workplace support that will provide the dignity and flexibility needed to optimize their mental health and overall wellbeing.
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