African American Need Stress Relief, Post Katrina
ED GORDON, host:
Gradually, the illnesses and injuries of Katrina's victims are getting the attention they need. In spite of that, commentator Amy Alexander says another area of healing deserves equal emphasis.
Almost lost amid the coverage of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina is the question of mental health services for its victims. For the thousands of black families who watched loved ones slip away, the need for counseling and therapy will be great. This is a touchy subject, even without the deep layer of material loss resulting from the hurricane. Black Americans, as I learned when I wrote a book about blacks and suicide several years ago, are the population least likely to seek and receive mental health services. The reasons are many and long-standing, including a historically troubled relationship with the medical health-care system in the United States.
Life has changed dramatically for many black Americans during the last 30 years. While racism as we knew it for most of our time in America has diminished. It isn't completely gone. For many of us, subtle slights and injustice, combined with a convulsive economic landscape, have created a psychic gap that fuels confusion, anger and frustration. Between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the suicide rate among young adult black males increased by more than a hundred and fourteen percent. The combination of guns, drugs, street violence and other forms of despair that continues to grip many of our neighborhoods has created a deadly alchemy of hopelessness and high-risk behaviors. Still, we tell ourselves that we must be strong, that we must bear up under extreme physical and psychological pressure. But now more than ever, we must resist the urge to hold everything in. Reaching out at this time especially is not a sign of weakness.
On a recent broadcast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, actor and comedian Chris Rock actually cried as he met with a black family living in a shelter. Their five-year-old daughter's hair was neatly braided, her hand-me-down dress was miraculously clean. Rock commented on how touching it was to see this little girl happy at such a time. She's laughing and confident because her daddy is with her. `She feels safe,' he said. `She reminds me of my daughter,' he said finally, as tears streamed down his face. By then, I was crying, too. How rare it is for Americans to see a grown black man weeping from emotion that doesn't involve a sporting event.
In the months to come, there will be thousands of black Katrina survivors and observers who will need ongoing help to cope with the emotional fallout. The historically paltry numbers of black medical doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists practicing in America, fewer than 10 percent of all licensed MDs, won't be able by themselves to handle the high numbers of those in need. It is incumbent upon doctors of all colors as well as the United States surgeon general and those in charge of the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, to make mental health a priority. Along with restoring the jobs, homes and schools of those who suffered in Katrina, we must take great care to see that their minds and hearts are mended, too.
GORDON: Amy Alexander is an author and media critic living in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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