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“A complicated pain": Systemic racism’s impact on Black Americans’ mental health

Black woman in therapy sits with her head in her hands as her therapist takes notes on a clipboard
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Therapist Napoleon Harrington said his Black clients have expressed a range of outrage, sadness, exhaustion and, most consistently, "a complicated pain" following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Black Americans reported asignificant spike in symptoms of anxiety and depression following the release of the video that showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. 

“It’s important to understand that the killing of unarmed Black men—and Black people, period—it’s had a collective toll on our psyche,” said Napoleon Harrington, a therapist at Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group.

Napoleon Harrington smiling in front of a brick wall with a blazer on
Credit Michigan Radio
Therapist Napoleon Harrington is the founder of Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group and a former president of the Michigan Mental Health Counseling Association.

Stateside spoke with Harrington about the unique stressors that African Americans face and how the mental health care system can better serve them.

“Pain by itself, alone, is complicated. But Black pain is exhaustingly so,” Harrington said. 

Like many insitutions in the United States, the mental health care system has a troubling history when it comes to how it's treated Black Americans. This “intolerant history,” Harrington says, has made it difficult for Black people to trust the systems that profess to help them. And as a result, many are hesitant to seek out the help they need.

“If you don’t have trust in a system, you have a very difficult time being able to utilize its benefits and helping your family get to a state of wholeness and wellness."

Even when Black people do seek help for mental health issues, Harrington said, white clinicians often don’t understand the unique and persistent stress of being Black in America. 

“Researchers even suggest that Black pain is … treated with a subtle indifference, as if the pain basically matters less,” he said.

If non-Black therapists want to provide thoughtful care and empathy to their Black clients, Harrington says, they need to understand  the layered, systemic difficulties those clients face. Another way to improve mental health care for Black people? Bring more Black mental health professionals into the field.

“If you increase the number of brown and Black clinicians that are out there, then more people will be able to see, ‘Wow, well, there are clinicians that relate to me or look like me, and I can access the care that way." 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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