February is a time to celebrate African American heritage and commemorate the incredible milestones that have been achieved by pioneers in our society. This includes celebrating those who continue forward, despite obstacles they may face on their journey toward recovery from substance abuse and mental illness. A tradition dating back over 100 years ago has helped us honor these leaders, while also focusing attention where it’s needed most, providing care for people struggling and in recovery.

African Americans have made a lasting impact on our society and continue to be an integral part of it. This month, we celebrate the achievements of these pioneers who were able through their hard work and dedication establish themselves in various aspects such as health care service delivery for those struggling with substance abuse disorders and mental health disorders.

What is Black History Month?

The story of Black History Month began in 1915, 50 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized and declared Black History Month. Ford called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

Today, Black History Month honors the historic contributions and legacy of African American leaders in the United States and society, within politics, science, healthcare, and culture, etc. This includes activists and civil rights pioneers such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and  Rosa Parks among others. 

Black History Month And Addiction 

Addiction and Black History Month aren’t exactly synonymous, but in a month set aside to recognize the importance of Black history, it’s a worthy endeavor to examine how African-Americans have been plagued by addiction, influenced recovery, and address the ongoing drug epidemic.

Addiction has been an all-too-common problem for African Americans. From the days of slavery to the present day, people of color have faced higher rates of substance abuse than their white counterparts. This month we’re taking a look at how this affects Black history. 

In examining addiction and Black History Month, it’s important to note that the use of drugs by African American communities is primarily associated with slavery. Excessive drinking problems were also well documented in Greek and Roman cultures, which may have originated from rituals performed at celebrations or religious festivals involving powerful drugs like marijuana. Most African people brought to America as slaves came from West African cultures in which alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer had been blended into their economic, social, and religious customs. 

Addressing Addiction And Mental Illness in the African American Population

Statistically, communities of color tend to suffer from a greater burden of mental and substance use disorders, often due in part to their lack of access to quality healthcare and resources. African Americans appear to experience consequences from drinking, more alcohol-related illnesses and injuries, and to some extent, are more likely to report symptoms of alcohol dependence and/or an alcohol use disorder (AUD) diagnosis. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that despite relatively uniform rates of substance abuse among racial and ethnic populations, there is a disproportionately high rate of drug arrests for African-Americans. In addition, members from these ethnic and minority groups also experience barriers in accessing treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. 

Black History Month and African American Mental Health Statistics

The history of African Americans has been characterized by social and emotional stigma. This includes the adversity and oppression they have faced and still do today, due to their race, including slavery, exclusion from health, educational, and economic resources. 

African American mental health statistics show that socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health. Research shows that African Americans are at higher risk for certain types of mental illness when compared to other races. This can be attributed in part to their lower socioeconomic status and poor living conditions which lead them towards experiencing poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. 

People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated, or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health. Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender, or identity. Here are statistics to know about mental health issues and the African American population:

  • African American adults are 20% more likely to experience mental health issues than the rest of the population
  • 25% of African Americans seek treatment for a mental health issue, compared to 40 percent of white individuals. The reasons include misdiagnosis, socioeconomic factors, and a lack of mental health professionals.
  • Adult African Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report severe psychological distress.
  • Suicide rates are higher for black people, especially teenagers. African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).
  • According to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), only a small percentage of members in the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association are Black.
  • African Americans of all ages are more likely to witness or be victims of serious violent crimes. Exposure to violence increases the risk of developing a mental health condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

Barriers to Treatment for African Americans

Anyone can experience the challenges of mental illness regardless of their background. However, especially for African Americans, it has made gaining access to mental health treatment programs much more difficult. Ongoing stigma and lack of access to health care act as barriers for anyone with a mental health condition, but experts argue there is a particular disparity when it comes to minority populations, which can contribute to individuals not receiving proper support or treatment to feel better.

Addiction and other health issues do not affect all communities in the same way. A new study published in the International Journal of Health Services only further illustrates this fact. Researchers found that black young people were less able to get mental health services than white children and young adults. This happens even though rates of mental illness are generally consistent across all ethnicities. 

The barriers to seeking and receiving quality treatment for a SUD can differ between racial groups. For many Black Americans, issues of poverty, a lack of health insurance, limited access to transportation, untreated and misdiagnosed mental health disorders, and other problems can make it more difficult to receive the help needed to recover from an addiction.

Black History Month: The Heroes Who Have Made An Impact on Addiction and Mental Health Treatment

Throughout Black History Month, our nation honors African-Americans who have made significant contributions to our country from all walks of life. Famous names such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks probably come to mind. 

Throughout history, African Americans have played a role in furthering research on substance use and helping communities of all races combat issues related to addiction. One prominent example is Frederick Douglass, who was a prominent abolitionist and 19th-century temperance movement, which emphasized sobriety.

Many African American leaders in the present day have furthered research and causes related to addiction, mental illness, sobriety, and recovery. 45th President of The United States Barack Obama established a drug policy to address the countries consequences due to substance abuse. This policy aimed to do the following:

  • Barriers to addiction treatment that impact black communities.  
  • Emphasized the prevention of drug use over being incarcerated.
  • Putting measures in place to help break the cycle of substance use, crime, arrest, and incarceration. 
  • Increasing access to necessary addiction treatment.

Medical practitioners play an important role within the black community by treating addiction as well as providing anti-racism efforts and education on how society can combat these problems together with better treatment options available for those who need them most. Therefore, Discovery Insitute would like to take an opportunity to introduce some individuals who have made significant contributions to the treatment of mental illness and addiction.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was the first prominent American recovering alcoholic and leader of the Black Temperance Movement. When freed from slavery, Douglass was a historic figure who escaped oppression and went on to become an author; editor of his newspaper (among other things); speaker whose words helped spur America’s liberation movement. 

He spoke openly about excessive drinking in public. He pointed out how it encouraged slave owners alike not only by white people but also African Americans themselves during the 19th century so they could create their temperance societies or mutual aid groups which outlined commitment towards sobriety as key for freedom. 

Andrea G. Barthwell, MD, FASAM

Andrea G. Barthwell, MD, FASAM has devoted herself to a balanced career of research and practice, merging a scientific aspect into the human behavioral aspect of substance abuse and addiction. At a national level, Barthwell contributed her efforts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy as the Deputy Director for Demand Reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush in the White House. Previously the President of the American Addiction Society of Medicine, she is now a fellow status member.  

Lula A. Beatty

Lula A. Beatty, Ph.D. focuses her research on the development of initiatives to increase the participation of underrepresented scholars involvement in drug abuse and addiction research.  Beatty is the director of the Special Populations Office, Office of the Director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  As an active civic and community leader, Beatty has achieved several awards.

Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD

Dr. Evans is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association. Before this role, he served as commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and

Intellectual disAbility Service. There he improved health outcomes and increased efficiency of service by adjusting the agency’s treatment philosophy, service delivery models, and fiscal policies. He was responsible for implementing recovery-oriented policies that addressed healthcare disparities and increased the use of evidence-based treatment practices.

The work Dr. Evans has done throughout his career has been the recipient of prestigious awards.  He was named Advocate for Action in 2015 by the White House Office of National Drug Control. In 2013, Evans was also recognized by Faces and Voices of Recovery with the Lisa Mojer-Torres Award for his dedication to mental health advocacy.

Breaking the Barriers and Cycle of Addiction

Black History Month is a celebration of all African Americans however every month of the year professionals and society, alike, should be working to break down barriers for all minority groups to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health. 

While African Americans should have unlimited access to mental health and substance abuse treatment resources and care, regardless of their social or financial status, this is a grassroots issue. 

This February, we celebrate Black History Month and the amazing contributions that African Americans have made to society. The philosophy that a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment doesn’t work for every patient, it’s necessary to look at ways in which addiction issues have impacted the African American community in the past and present.

Make This Month the Start of Your Recovery Journey

If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, there’s no need to struggle in silence any longer. At Discovery Institute, we provide recovery services that empower clients to safely recover and transition to a sober and healthy lifestyle. 

Addressing these major issues can help all who seek recovery an equal footing to receive it. Our team is focused on improving minority health and minimizing health disparities.  Happy Black History Month!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by The Discovery Institute