CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - One in six. That’s how many adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. But for minorities, the numbers are much greater.
The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says compared to whites - African Americans are 20 percent more likely - and Latinos are 40 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress.
Only about one-quarter of African Americans and Latinos seek mental health care - compared to 40 percent of whites. Statistics are even worse for Native Americans and Alaska Natives - who are 70 percent more likely to experience psychological distress.
It’s part of the reason why July was designated at Minority Mental Health awareness month back in 2008.
Experts recognized the disparity and say highlighting it is key to not only closing the gap but also people of color and encouraging them to be proactive when it comes to mental health.
For many communities of color, mental health – and mental illness – has long had a stigma attached.
Torian Parker, of Charlotte, recalled how he felt before beginning therapy with Jimmy McNeill, his partner of nearly eight years.
“I felt like I was walking around in like this hollow shell going through each day,” said Parker. “And I was like we can’t - we can’t keep doing that and stay together. It’s not going to work. Our happiness is more important.”
McNeill, 26, admits he initially had reservations about seeking help.
“I think it was really just based upon what I heard about therapy and they have to get into your ‘business’ and I think I was really afraid of that,” he said. “But once I really started thinking about us and our future and really wanted us to be on the path of success, I knew that us going to therapy was something that we needed to do.”
That realization was a watershed moment - both as black men and a gay couple. They’re acutely aware of the stigma attached to mental health in communities of color, particularly the black church.
"Faith without works is dead, Parker said. “So you cannot just think I'm going to get better and you know you just need to pray it away and that's it. Because that's not going to happen. You've gotta get up and give yourself some initiative.”
Both raised in church in small rural towns, they say the perils of embracing their lifestyle had been drilled into them. "Just trying to wake up every day and push through is hard,” Parker said.” “When you have all that worry on you.”
A worry that weighed heavily on the couple, especially McNeill. As only child, he his relationship with Parker from his mother for years despite the two having a close relationship.
"I just came out to her this January so all this time I’ve been in hiding and not really been able to be my authentic self,” he revealed. "And once I got that acceptance from her, like that was the best feeling in the world - I’m free.”
And, hearing McNeill express such freedom is what their licensed therapist, Alicia Tetteh, says makes her life's work worthwhile. “I was floored because I'm like, that takes so much courage, right,” she said. “But if he can get on TV and talk about that courage - maybe that can help the next person that's trying to come out or the next couple who feels like they need to go and sit with someone so again it can just speak volumes for us in the community to see people who look like you.”
Tetteh is also trying to change the culture of people feeling pressured to always act like everything is ‘fine,’ even in casual, day-to-day conversations.
“I really don’t like 'everything’s fine’,” she said. “When someone ask you how you’re doing, you’re supposed to present like everything’s fine. And, so for those of us who don’t have anywhere to put all the emotions when everything is not fine, it’s kind of like we’re putting tape over our mouth. I want us to move out of this space - it’s OK to tell someone, 'Today I ain’t feeling it. Actually I’m having a bad day’."
Yet, Tetteh is still buoyed by Parker and McNeill’s candor because it gives her hope that people of color are beginning to be proactive – and not reactive - about their mental health.
“They come to me when the volcano is about to erupt,” she said. “But I really am trying to push this idea of maintenance. I’m trying to really change this narrative like don’t wait to come see me at the end. Come see me at the beginning.”
Maintenance Parker likens to getting your car serviced regularly.
“Just like cars we break down, we get tired, the brakes go out,” he explained. “Those things happen and if you don’t check them, you’ll be on the side of the road. And I don’t want to be on the side of the road by myself and it’s good that I have somebody who can say, ‘your check engine light is on’.”