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How ‘Black Panther’ and Jay-Z Are Changing the Mental Health Conversation in African American Communities

Imagine a world without racism, poverty or chronic illness. In that world, would the prevalence of mental illness look differently among communities of color? Marvel’s newest hit film, Black Panther, poses that very question (“‘Black Panther’ and mental health in the Black community,” ABC News, February 17, 2018).

A superhero movie in a sci-fi setting featuring a predominately black cast, Black Panther is the first film of its kind. In it, residents of Wakanda – the fictional, resource-rich, hyper-insulated country the movie centers around – are protected from many of the risk factors for mental illness that the African American community experiences – like racism, poverty and chronic illness.

African Americans are more likely to experience depression than Caucasians, and the symptoms tend to be more severe. Yet only 33.6 percent of African Americans with depression seek professional help. A shortage of mental health services, the stigma against mental health in the black community and a lack of positive representation in media are all factors that contribute to this disparity. We know that self-image and perception are important to one’s mental health, and both are learned at a young age.

“At a very basic level, representation affects people’s identity,” said Dr. Ruth Shim, Director of Cultural Psychiatry and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, Davis. “Having positive representations and people reflecting the diversity of what they can be and experience can be protective against depression and anxiety stemming from negative images.”

That’s why movies like Black Panther – and the voices of high-profile celebrities like Jay-Z – are so critical when it comes to closing the mental health gap in communities of color.

Jay-Z recently spoke to CNN’s Van Jones about mental health disparities in black communities. During the interview, Jay-Z highlighted the need for trained counselors in school for children – particularly children of color. In an earlier interview in 2017, Jay-Z discussed the benefits of overcoming stigma and going to therapy.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity to have an impact on communities and people facing mental health challenges. Mental Health First Aid training is a great place to start for anyone who wants to learn how to notice and support someone who may be experiencing a mental illness or addiction. Every individual trained in Mental Health First Aid is one more person with the ability to reach out and offer support to someone who may be experiencing stigma or facing a challenge they shouldn’t have to face alone.

For communities experiencing unique risk factors and disparities when it comes to mental health – like the black community – building those bridges is critical.

#BeTheDifference in your community. Find a Mental Health First Aid course near you.

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