Obstacles to mental health care

6/17/2016, 5:39 p.m.

Kimya N. Dennis

Shay T. Dennis

In 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell died in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail after being arrested for stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. According to Mr. Mitchell’s family, he had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia but had stopped taking his schizophrenia medication.

His arrest and death highlight a number of issues. For decades, jails and prisons have become short-term and long-term holding facilities for people with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health conditions. This has a big impact on African-Americans for reasons including overrepresentation in poverty and less access to health resources.

People sometimes ask why it can be difficult to access health resources. There is no quick and easy answer. Many communities have been ignored and mistreated for decades and are now expected to trust health professionals and use resources provided.

Community culture is also important, including the belief of many African-Americans in religion, faith and spirituality as a healing force. Through religion-faith-spirituality, many African-Americans believe in something greater than oneself. There is less importance given to self-awareness and self-improvement but, instead, it is important to be religious and take care of family and community. While these beliefs can create strong and resilient communities, there can also be problems when individuals are unhealthy.

People can have physical conditions and mental conditions that are ignored or considered unimportant. Sometimes people try to self-diagnose, self-medicate, or self-heal through prayer and the use of vitamins or other substances.

This is where we must encourage healthy lifestyles and keep track of our physical and mental health. Being a physically healthy and mentally healthy person does not mean we are not taking care of our family, our community or are denying our blackness. (This is not a “white people thing.”) In fact, being healthy means we truly love ourselves (never ignore yourself), our family and our community.

We need to encourage people to know about their physical health and mental health. We also need to encourage people to access health resources and services in their cities and communities.

It can be difficult to find health resources and services, which is why some mental health organizations do community presentations and are vendors at community events. People can contact mental health organizations to discuss cost for services and whether public transportation is nearby.

This is a two-way street that requires openness and availability on the part of health professionals and the community. While we want health professionals to understand our communities, we should also try to understand how difficult it can be to reach our communities. Mental health practitioners and volunteers are understandably saddened when they work hard to provide resources only for these resources to be unused or underused. It can feel like a waste of time and money.

As a community, we need to reduce the shame and silence associated with mental health and we need to encourage people to use resources provided to the community.

Kimya N. Dennis, a Richmond native, is a criminologist and sociologist who addresses black mental health, suicide and self-harm issues.

Shay T. Dennis, a Richmond native, is a mental health provider who works with clients and outreach in Northern Virginia and Washington.