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How Psychiatry Mistreats People of Color

There’s a deep mistrust between communities of color and the mental health field.


Reprinted with permission of For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly Colorlines Direct.


Editor’s note: This is the first part of a 2-day series on people of color and mental health.

Earlier this month, news surfaced of a Louisiana school psychologist who posted racially charged messages on Twitter. Mark Traina, who later  resigned, worked as a psychologist at an alternative school in Jefferson Parish Public School System, a district that’s been under intense scrutiny in recent months. According to a court  complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jefferson County has been sending a disproportionate number of black and special education kids to “languish for months” in the district’s alternative schools.

Traina had already taken to Twitter to post his support of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain charged with murdering Trayvon Martin. But back in January, Traina went on a rant against “young black thugs.” Traina, a self-proclaimed ‘American Civil Rights Activist who unlike Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton presents all Americas”, tweeted that “Young black thugs who won’t follow the law need to be put down not incarcerated. Put down like the Dogs they are!”

While black children aren’t often ceremoniously “put down like dogs”, they do face harsh school punishment at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Jefferson Parish’s problems are symptomatic of a disease that’s already been diagnosed nationally: the  tendency to dole out harsher than average treatment for people of color. From the classroom to the clinician’s office, there’s a long and troubling relationship between racism and the mental health field. 

Research has also shown the black students are disciplined more severely than white students, even when they commit offenses that are less serious. The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado reported ( PDF) that more than 30 percent of black students caught using, or in possession of, a cell phone for the first time were suspended. The rate for white students who committed the same infraction was just 17 percent. 

The disparity lead Education Secretary Arne Duncan to lament that “the everyday educational experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

Data released this year by the U.S. Department of education showed that black students are  three times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. Even though black students make up just 18 percent of students nationally, they comprise 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. Additionally, as Liz Dywer points out at GOOD, 70 percent of students arrested or referred to police are black or Latino.

Yet many contend that the problem extends far beyond the classroom. When it comes to mental illness, people of color are more likely to be given more severe diagnoses than their white counterparts. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that even though schizophrenia has been shown to affect all ethnic groups at the same rate, black people in the U.S. were more than four times as likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than whites. Latinos were more than three times as likely to be diagnosed as whites.

“The way we define mental illness is slanted toward pathologizing basically angry black men,” said Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University and author of the book “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.”

There’s a deep mistrust between communities of color and the mental health field. The National Alliance on Mental Health notes ( PDF) that African Americans are more likely to be misdiagnosed and, in turn, receive inadequate treatment often due to a “lack of cultural understanding.”

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