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Mental health in the Black community: Q&A with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, an expert on health equity, is an advocate for more openness in the Black community about mental health concerns. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, an expert on health equity, is an advocate for more openness in the Black community about mental health concerns. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File) (MARK HUMPHREY/AP)

The topic of mental health has been weighing on the minds of many as the coronavirus pandemic continues. One of the leading physicians in the nation, Dr. David Satcher has taken a keen interest in this area — particularly in overcoming the stigma in the Black community about mental health treatment.

Satcher, who is Black, is a former U.S. Surgeon General and a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When he attended medical school, Satcher was the only Black student, an experience he said shaped him to be bold and stand up for his beliefs. He established the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine Center to work on health equity. In the fall of 2020, he wrote about overcoming the stigma of mental health and other topics in the book “My Quest for Health Equity: Notes on Learning While Leading.

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Monday, he spoke about the issue as part of a virtual series organized by the University of Maryland School of Social Work’s Promise Heights Initiative, “From The Heights.” Satcher talked with Andrea Brown, the executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance on ways to strengthen the relationship between mental health care practitioners and their patients and how to encourage a more positive attitude around the topic of mental health.

The Baltimore Sun talked with Dr. Satcher about the intersections of race, health and the pandemic.

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This conversation has been edited for length.

What has been the Black community’s experience with mental health and mental health care historically?

I think we have not dealt with mental health the same way we’ve dealt with other health issues. We have to be very concerned about people who are being arrested because of how they are behaving on the street, and I think that we are now starting to talk about this issue. I think stigma has been a problem throughout our history. People have said, “It’s just the devil in you.” We have to deal with all of that.

How do we as a society get better?

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The first thing we do is talk about it and have discussions. We need to learn about it in school. Anyone in health care needs to be able to talk about it.

How is the pandemic affecting the mental health of Black Americans?

Say you live in a one- or two-room apartment, it’s not as easy to move around, and therefore it’s more difficult to get the breathing room, or needs for children, especially the need to be active and be able to interact … I’m really concerned about what’s happening with children generally, but with Black children in particular. I know that as a rule we don’t have resources to make living at home as attractive or as healthy as we want it to be. The more crowded your situation, the more difficult it is to appreciate spending time at home.

This pandemic is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a mental health challenge because you know obviously young people as well as older people are not accustomed to spending all day at home, so that’s a mental health challenge. It’s a mental health challenge when you can’t see your grandparents, when you’re isolated from your friends who live next door on the same street. We have to take every opportunity for interactions.

What can people do to improve mental health during the pandemic?

I think there are online activities that can be implemented that will help children interact with each other, with their parents and grandparents. But when you say that, right away you realize that Black families in many cases are less likely to have access to the internet, and therefore less interaction — and grandparents are less likely to be involved with the internet. But I think that’s changing, and we have to stop saying what we can’t do, and what we won’t do. Making those changes are necessary because this pandemic is going to be with us awhile.

Do you believe that going forward, we will be able to talk more openly about Black mental health?

We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 10 years when it comes to talking about mental health. If we continue to make that progress, then I think we will see improvements in the diagnosis and the treatment of mental health problems.

Physicians are not as comfortable talking about mental health problems when they should be. There is this stigma that surrounds mental illness, so there are people who are in the street who end up in prison, when they should be getting treatment. Hopefully, we’re improving, but we’re not there yet.

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner

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