(WDVM) — Mental health – some would say it can be a tricky topic to discuss, especially in the African American community.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 53 million people in America reported in 2020 that they live with a mental illness, which equates to 1 in 5 Americans and about 21 percent of adults. 17.3 percent of those people are in the African American community, but an even smaller percentage seek out help.

Pastor Pamela Parson is a longtime mental health advocate in western Maryland, specifically in the Jonathan Street community. She says that members of the African American community often feel unheard of or misunderstood by mental health providers.

“I have talked to a lot of the blacks and minorities in the community and they feel labeled and that’s a huge problem within our community,” Pastor Parson explained. “Oftentimes, individuals are improperly diagnosed, but because of their culture, they’re labeled as schizo or they’re labeled as manic depression, and it’s not often the case.”

She says that the stigma surrounding mental health is one of the many factors that could deter people from seeking help.

“There are linguistic and cultural differences for the immigrant population, and then there were also most minorities do not have insurance,” Pastor Parson said. “They may not be able to get off their jobs because they have to work because they don’t have anyone or any finances to provide for them other than they get out and go to work to take care of their families. So that is a barrier.”

Dr. Bola Olugbola is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner in Randallstown, Maryland who agrees with Pastor Parson. She says that some of her patients and other prospective patients might be worried about the financial strain of seeking out help for their mental health.

“This is somebody that cannot afford their meal, you are telling them to come and pay $50 after seeing me, you know, imagine Maslow’s hierarchy of need,” Dr. B said.

Dr. B, as she is known to her patients, says that the lack of providers and the cost also contributes to the issue.

“They will choose food. They will choose housing,” Dr. B explained. “And instead of sitting down with me, they could say, ‘Doctor, I can talk to a family member. I can talk to my pastor, you know, I can call a friend.’ So that’s is one of the issues that we have.”

But Dr. B hopes that people will view mental health treatment as they view treatment and care by other healthcare providers.

“If you say you have high blood pressure and you’re taking medication or you’re seeing somebody that will help with your high blood pressure is the same here [when seeking mental health treatment] not there’s no difference,” Dr. B said.

She also says that community resources and conversations in schools could help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

“We need to go to our schools and in the schools, there should be something called mental health day,” Dr. B explained. “Because I’m telling you a lot of these kids they are going through. But is anybody talking about it? I don’t know. Mental health is not a life sentence illness.

Pastor Parson offers holistic support classes at the Jonathan Street Community Outreach Center and shares this message for people struggling with their mental health.

“I encourage everyone you know, you may not like your situation or you may be going through some trauma, but try to go to someone that you can trust that you feel comfortable with to help you get through the trauma.”

Pastor Pamela Parson

If you are struggling with your mental health and feel at risk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which is 1-800-273-TALK or 8255 for English or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish. You can also text the Crisis Line by messaging signs to 741741 for free anonymous crisis counseling.