African Americans and Substance Abuse: Addressing Mental Health Issues Before Addiction Takes Control

Mental health and substance abuse are prevalent problems in society today. It is critical to address mental health issues and substance abuse before addiction can take over. Studies have shown that socioeconomic status is linked to mental health, providing one window of opportunity for implementing prevention programs to reduce the prevalence of addiction in higher-risk communities and demographics. Mental Health America states, “People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.”

abandoned-1251614_640According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health, “African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites.” Another disturbing fact from this report: “A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233%, as compared to 120% of Non-Hispanic Whites.”

We’ve created this comprehensive guide to shed light on these alarming statistics and to highlight how attitudes, socioeconomic status, stigmas, education, and culturally educated practitioners can affect mental health and addiction in the African American community. Packed with resources on substance abuse and addiction in the African American community, the prevalence of mental illness and attitudes toward mental illness in the African American community, and resources to address underlying factors and challenges, this guide aims to help you address mental illness and related issues before addiction takes control.

What You’ll Find in This Guide:

  • Substance Abuse and Addiction in the African American Community
  • Prevalence of Mental Illness in the African American Community
  • Attitudes Toward Mental Illness in the African American Community
  • Co-occurring Disorders and the Affordable Care Act
  • Resources for Mental Illness, Addiction, and Co-occurring Disorders

Substance Abuse and Addiction in the African American Community
The resources in this section examine statistics on substance abuse in the African American community. This includes drug use and binge drinking, as well as the prevalence of alcohol dependence and addiction, highlighting the need for more education and better professional treatment access in the African American community.

drinking-997189_640The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in December 2014 the rate of illegal drug use among African Americans ages 12 and older was 12.4 percent. Compared to the national average (10.2%), this data reveals a greater prevalence of illegal drug use in the African American community. Binge drinking is another significant issue that affects a large portion of the United States population. SAMHSA states that the rate of binge drinking is a problem in the African American community (21.6%) as well as the nation overall (23%).

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) posted a publication, written by Karen Chartier, M.S.W., Ph.D., and Raul Caetano, M.D., M.P.H., P.h.D., titled, “Ethnicity and Health Disparities in Alcohol Research.” According to Chartier and Caetano, Caucasians are more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lifetime (13.8%) than African Americans (8.4%). But, once dependent upon alcohol, African Americans (35.4%) have a higher prevalence than Caucasians (22.8%) of “recurrent or persistent alcohol dependence.” These numbers clearly illustrate the need for more education and better initial and continuing professional treatment and support in the African American community as a whole.

A policy statement released by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) states that “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Further explained is the concerning fact that those with addiction often relapse, often doing so multiple times. Addiction can progress and even disable an individual or possibly lead to an early death, pointing to the importance of more comprehensive preventative measures. According to ASAM, addiction is characterized by:

  • [An] inability to consistently abstain;
  • [An] impairment in behavioral control;
  • [A] craving; or increased ‘hunger’ for drugs or rewarding experiences;
  • [A] diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships; and
  • A dysfunctional emotional response

Prevalence of Mental Illness in the African American Community
How does socioeconomic status add to psychological distress and affect mental health in the African American community? In this section, we explore this question and examine why African Americans are more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than non-Hispanic whites.

SAMHSA reports that the rates of African Americans with mental disorders are generally low. The organization states, “In 2014, 3.8% of African American adults ages 18 and older had a past-year mental illness and a substance use disorder, while the national average was 3.3%.” SAMHSA also explains that in 2014 the average percentage of African American adults with mental illness of any kind was 16.3%, while the national average for adults was 18.1%.

Studies have shown that a person’s status in society can affect their mental health. Joseph Powell, Former President of the National Leadership Council on African American Behavioral Health, states that mental health status is affected by poverty. According to Powell, “Persons at the poverty level are three times more likely to have psychological distress,” and poverty is experienced more so for African Americans as compared to other ethnicities. reports the following facts, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health:

  • 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).

Also concerning among the African American community, and society at large, is PTSD. The US HHS Office of Minority Health states that all ages of African Americans are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to suffer from PTSD as a result of being victims of serious violent crimes.

Attitudes Toward Mental Illness in the African American Community
Generally speaking, mental illness is highly stigmatized in the African American community. This section examines some of the different views of mental illness, as well as considerations that may affect the necessary treatment of mental illnesses.

insecurity-1306280_640The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) states that studies have shown mixed results among African Americans regarding attitudes toward mental illness in the African American community. As with many other communities, mental illness is regularly stigmatized in the African American community, often viewed as a personal weakness. The NLM report states that stigmatization contributes to low treatment-seeking among the African American community, meaning that potential problems may go untreated and lead to more devastating outcomes.

However, the NLM states that in some parts of the African American community there is a positive attitude about finding help for mental illness; unfortunately, this did not translate to seeking treatment. The NLM reports that in several studies, “African Americans had more positive attitudes toward seeking mental services than Caucasians, but were less likely to use services.”

According to a PubMed report (via ResearchGate), which reveals findings from a 2013 study, attitudes reported by participants reveal that African Americans are not open to acknowledging psychological problems, due in part to concerns regarding the stigma associated with mental illness. offers additional perspective on the cultural perspectives on mental illness, noting, “Cultural and religious teachings often influence beliefs about the origins and nature of mental illness, and shape attitudes towards the mentally ill.”

There is some belief in the African American community that mental illness will get better on its own, and often turning to family and/or religion is a way to cope with mental illness. It is believed that the lack of African American mental health providers and the need for culturally educated and experienced Caucasian practitioners may be another reason that professional help is not sought.

Co-occurring Disorders and the Affordable Care Act
What is the best way to treat a person with two or more disorders (co-occurring disorders)? In this section we define co-occurring disorders (also referred to as “comorbidity”) and examine treatment approaches for individuals presenting with co-occurring disorders, as well as discuss research showing the benefits of treating these disorders at the same time. Also explored are ways in which the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped the African American Community.

A co-occurring disorder, previously known as a dual diagnosis, refers to when a person has two or more disorders occurring at the same time related to substance abuse and mental illness. One example is someone trying to cope with both alcoholism and depression. Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to treat because, according to Psychology Today, one disorder may be more severe than the other, but the scale may tip and the roles may reverse. Because of this, relapse prevention must be designed for those with co-occurring disorders. Psychology Today also states that, “Compared with patients who have a single disorder, patients with dual disorders often require longer treatment, have more crises, and progress more gradually in treatment.”

Co-occurring disorders are best treated through integrated treatment. SAMHSA states that integrated treatment “requires collaboration across disciplines.” SAMHSA also reports that the costs are lower and there are better outcomes associated with integrated treatment because both conditions are treated at the same time. Some of the benefits, according to SAMHSA, include:

  • Reduced substance use
  • Improved psychiatric symptoms and functioning
  • Decreased hospitalization
  • Increased housing stability
  • Fewer arrests
  • Improved quality of life

The HHS reports that the ACA has improved healthcare for the African American community. One of the main goals of the ACA includes increasing access to “affordable, quality health care.” In what ways has the ACA been working for the African American community? The HHS highlights:

  • Many shoppers found coverage for less than $50 a month and nearly 7 in 10 found coverage for less than $100…
  • More than 500,000 African American young adults between the ages of 19 and 26 who would have been uninsured now have coverage under their parents’ plan.
  • 2.3 million African Americans (ages 18-64) gained health insurance coverage, lowering the uninsured rate among African Americans by 6.8 percentage points.

Resources for Mental Illness, Addiction, and Co-occurring Disorders
The following are helpful resources for obtaining more information about mental illness, substance abuse, addiction, co-occurring disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

hope-393239_640The mission of SAMHSA is to “reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities.” SAMHSA’s National Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. To reach the helpline you can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or visit the online treatment locators.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness,” according to its website. To reach the NAMI HelpLine call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. EST. You may also reach volunteers or staff at states on its website that the organization “provides one-stop access to U.S. government mental health and mental health problems information. aims to educate and guide: the general public; health and emergency preparedness professionals; policy makers; government and business leaders; school systems; [and] local communities.” This branch of HHS offers a wealth of information for those seeking help for mental health issues.

Recovery Now! offers this description of its mission for supporting those in need: “We envision community-based, recovery-oriented systems of care where all Americans can easily access a range of quality mental health and social services, leading to increased recovery and whole health.” It is a great resource for learning about different recovery options that may be available to you, as well as stories of hope from others who have dealt with mental health and addiction issues.

The National Institute of Mental Health offers a free brochure about PTSD which describes “signs and symptoms, treatment choices, and helpful resources” related to the illness.
For information on the Affordable Care Act and how it can help you, visit the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website.

Mental illness and substance abuse are problems plaguing the African American community as well as society as a whole. Negative attitudes regarding mental illness and substance abuse are often roadblocks to successful prevention and treatment. Greater awareness and early intervention are key steps in preventing these issues from taking control of your life, or guiding you back to a healthy path.

One Response to “African Americans and Substance Abuse: Addressing Mental Health Issues Before Addiction Takes Control”

  1. My God, the numbers of suicides in ages 10-14 are all up over 100% with African Americans up 233%. Ages 10-14! These are babies, they should be enjoying life, playing, having fun yet they are so stressed out that they commit suicide? That is the more awful thing I’ve heard in my life. I have a granddaughter this age and a growing grandson. To think that they could have so much going on in their life that they could contemplate suicide is really scary. We really need to help these kids with this so they can grow up and live better lives.

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