Why Untreated Mental Illness Has Led to Homelessness for Many African Americans

America’s homelessness crisis has evolved into a crisis of color. Even the casual observer couldn’t fail to notice that in every homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, and soup kitchens across America, the black faces outnumber those of whites and other minorities.

The Cycle of Poverty, Mental Illness, & Homelessness

Before the economic crisis in 2008, whites held more wealth than most minorities, including blacks. After the financial crisis hit, the gap just kept growing. At its root, homelessness is a poverty issue, and more blacks have been living in poverty than any other race. While substance abuse and domestic violence can lead anyone into crisis, the lack of money can exacerbate the situation.
In the US, 34 million people regularly identify themselves as African American. Approximately 22 percent of those individuals live in poverty, and it is poverty that places these people at higher risk for:
  •       Homelessness
  •       Mental Illness
  •       Child Abuse
  •       Domestic Violence
  •       Being a Victim of a Violent Crime
  •       Being Incarcerated

African Americans & the Stigma of Mental Illness

Unfortunately, in the African American community, mental health conditions may be misunderstood, and mental illness is often something that “isn’t discussed.” This lack of knowledge often leads community members to believe people suffering from mental illness are weak. In some circles, those with mental illness may be experiencing punishment from God or a lack of faith.
This silence comes at a high price, robbing those with mental illness of the necessary support from family and clergy. Without a support system in place, many folks may be prevented from accessing care. Undoubtedly, shame and discouragement may cause those receiving care to cease treatment.
Of course, the shame and abandonment sufferers fear so much may become inevitable as their symptoms worsen. Untreated mental illness often leads to strained familial relationships, social dysfunction, and incarceration. Divorce, unemployment, and suicide are also common outcomes for those who are unable to obtain or sustain mental health treatment.

Barriers Preventing Blacks from Receiving Treatment

Confronted with prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis, African Americans can’t expect the healthcare system to offer refuge from this social reality. Consequently, this systemic distrust that prevents many blacks from ever seeking treatment. For those that are seeking treatment, confronting a system that offers frequent misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment, and a pervasive lack of cultural competence among healthcare professionals seems to be the norm rather than the exception.
Poverty plays a significant role in preventing blacks from receiving appropriate care for mental illness. While there are many options for mental health treatment, too many of these options are not available for individuals who don’t have health insurance or enough money to cover rising treatment costs. Furthermore, Medicaid may not be available to help cover the costs for many due to reduced coverage options in many states. Sadly, those who may have had coverage through Obamacare may find themselves priced out of the market as health insurance premiums are increasing at an exponential rate.

Education is the Key to Ending Homelessness & Untreated Mental Illness

Untreated mental illness can make life especially difficult for anyone. Consequently, sufferers may not be able to hold down jobs or even connect with community supports. People with mental illness may be estranged from family or trapped in situations of abuse or domestic violence. Obtaining or maintaining housing may seem like an impossible task for someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
Education is paramount to addressing these concerns from within the black community. Educating individuals and the community as a whole is essential in decreasing the risk of homelessness for African Americans with mental health issues. Members of the black community, especially those who occupy positions in health care and clergy, must come together with policymakers to develop strategies for eliminating the stigma of mental illness.
Of course, educating the black community isn’t enough. African Americans need to unite and engage in open dialogue with psychiatrists and mental health professionals from all walks of life to increase awareness of the cultural differences and unique needs blacks with mental illness may have. Only then, will there be a chance of reducing the rate of homelessness in the black community.

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