African American Communities and Mental Health

Demographics/Societal Issues

  • 13.2% of the U.S. population, or roughly 42 million people, identify themselves as African American, according to 2013 US Census Bureau numbers. (1)  Another 1 percent identified as multiracial.  This represents an increase from 12 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 34 million people, who identified themselves as African American in the 2000 Census. (2) In 2007, roughly 3 million of all blacks in the U.S. were foreign born. (3)

  • As of 2010, Fifty-five percent of all blacks lived in the South, 18 percent lived in the Midwest, 17 percent in the Northeast, and 10 percent in the West. (4)

  • Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today. Socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.

  • Notwithstanding the 2008 election of our first African American President, racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of African Americans. Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection have decreased, but continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences. Historical and contemporary instances of negative treatment have led to a mistrust of authorities, many of whom are not seen as having the best interests of African Americans in mind.


According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health: (5)

  • Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. 
  • Adult blacks living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. 
  • Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites.
  • And while blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent v. 6.3 percent)

African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Historically, attitudinal barriers have led to roadblocks to accessing services and treatment.  In 1996, MHA commissioned a national survey on clinical depression. The survey explored the barriers preventing Americans seeking treatment and gauged overall knowledge of and attitudes toward depression. This survey revealed that:

  • 63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness, this is significantly higher than the overall survey average of 54 percent.
  • Only 31 percent of African Americans believed that depression was a “health problem.”
  • African Americans were more likely to believe that depression was “normal” than the overall survey average.
    • ​56 percent believed that depression was a normal part of aging
    • 45 percent believed it was normal for a mother to feel depressed for at least two weeks after giving birth
    • 40 percent believed it was normal for a husband or wife to feel depressed for more than a year after the death of a spouse.
  • ​Barriers to the treatment of depression cited by African Americans included: