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3 African American Leaders in Mental Health

In an America reminded of its history of division by recent politics, it would be a little irresponsible not to recognize that we live in politically-charged times. The right and the left are at war with each other more than usual, and it’s not pretty.

No matter who you voted for, we were all taught the same basic things about America: The United States of America is a country of cultural diversity and bringing together the best in people. The very concept of America was founded on the continent of the New World by people of the Old World, and ever since the inception of the Constitution, immigrants have come and helped define what the US is.

Yet despite this grand notion of a cultural melting pot, the United States is a country with a bloodied and divided history. Colonialism, imperialism, slavery, anti-Semitism, racial intolerance and genocide are all part of this grand nation’s history, and the fabric of the American flag is stained in more than just the dream of meritocracy, freedom, and liberty.

We’ve come a long way from Jim Crow, and the violent clashing between white and black nationalism on a daily basis – but now more than ever, it’s important to recognize that racism is still very much a part of the conversation in American politics, and society at large.

The only way to diffuse racism is through tolerance and inclusion.

Today, I’d like us to celebrate three influential African American figures in the industry of mental health who have done a lot to indiscriminately help millions of Americans and improve our understanding of psychiatry and the mind as a whole.

Mamie Phipps Clark

Our first highlighted figure is a woman who tackled her vocation with full force and left behind a lasting legacy in developmental psychology, and the study of race in psychiatry.

Mamie Phipps Clark focused on studying the development of self-consciousness in young black children and became famous for her doll study, which worked to prove the negative psychological effects of racial segregation on young schoolchildren, as well as more of her work involving mental health, race, and segregation in the early 20th century.

She lived a privileged childhood, with a successful physician for a father and received a lengthy education graduating magna cum laude from Howard University – all of these were anomalies for African Americans at the time, and her success as a woman was especially rare and proved frustrating for her colleagues. America was openly racist at the time, and Clark’s status as a black woman often superseded her accomplishments as a holder of a Ph.D. in experimental psychology.

Nevertheless, she persevered to strive for excellence in the psychiatric community and specifically sought to alleviate black plight through initiatives like the Northside Center for Child Development, a therapy center for children in Harlem, and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project. Her affinity for children and developmental psychology grew after conducting psychological testing for young homeless black girls in the 40s. She remained an active psychiatrist until 1979 and was active on several community boards in New York.

Her legacy specifically centers on the doll study, an experiment she conducted as a continuation of her master’s thesis, proving the fact that racial segregation not only taught children to view whiteness as a sign of superiority, but instilled self-hatred and race denial into black schoolchildren, and taught them they were inferior, causing psychological harm.

The experiment was later used in a case made to the Board of Education calling for the abolishment of racial segregation in schools and was part of a larger movement that eventually saw America do away with segregation altogether. She died of cancer in 1983.

Maxie Clarence Maultsby, Jr.

Maxie Clarence Maultsby, Jr., while a bit of a handful to say, has a very simple contribution in the field of mental health: the creation and founding of the psychotherapeutic method of rational behavior therapy.

Rational behavior therapy is part of a greater array of psychotherapies in the vein of cognitive behavior therapy, focusing on effective short-term treatment of most mental illnesses including major depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar and more. Maultsby wrote of the importance of maintaining that his psychiatric tool was culture-free, calling it an important part of creating a psychiatric tool that could help blacks as well as whites.

His rational behavior therapy made several interesting contributions to the fields of psychiatry, including the fact that it was among the first few psychiatric therapies to actually focus on the human brain and its neurophysiology as a basis for the theories and contents of the therapy, making strides to improve the practices of cognitive behavioral therapy overall through the inclusion of neurobiology, rather than a basis of introspection and observation alone.

RBT also pioneered in training, as it was reportedly much easier to learn than other existing therapies, and it removed limitations on what healthy thinking is, making greater room for individualism and determinism in a field where the ability to provide a unique, molded therapeutic experience is proving increasingly important. It was also one of the first few therapies that encouraged clients and patients to take up the helm of therapist for themselves, and continue their own therapy outside the confines of the clinic or office as a means of rational behavior self-counseling.

Alongside his founding of a major therapeutic tool and advances in the understanding of psychotherapy and our ability to help people cope with their mental disabilities, he was an emeritus professor at the College of Medicine, at Howard University. Prof. Maultsby died in 2016.

Freda C. Lewis-Hall

Freda C. Lewis-Hall, MD is tough, to say the least. She’s the EVP and Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer, one of the largest and most significant players in the field of medication and pharmaceuticals, and her story as a black female doctor is empowering and humbling.

Just like the other two members of this list, Freda was associated with Howard University – in her case, as associate professor of the Department of Psychiatry. She spent her first few years as a medical professional working on the frontlines of psychiatric care, and her work earned her recognition as a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

She joined Pfizer in 2009, after working in several medically-related positions within other biopharmaceutical companies. While she began working on the front lines, she’s now working behind the scenes, spanning a career in the field of biopharmaceuticals as a means to bring in the expertise and experience of years in the field of psychiatry and mental health into the process of developing medication.

She was a member of the Board of Governors for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute and several others. Savoy named her as one among several of the top women in corporate America, and her continued involvement in mental health makes her a role model for aspiring psychiatrists and mental health professionals.

The Importance of Mental Health in Black America

We have ways to go before total racial equality is a reality – and part of that is evidenced by the fact that mental health issues continue to hit African Americans more than the general population (by 20%), in rough correlation to socioeconomics.

That’s not exactly news – income inequality, class, and race are interrelated in America, and poverty is a common vector for mental health issues – yet it’s not the only reason why black America has an issue with mental illness. The other is stigma.

Culturally, being mentally ill is often seen as negative among minorities, especially blacks. Being “crazy” is seen not so much as a medical condition with a wide range of causal factors (including biological and genetic ones), and more as a character flaw or personality trait. This means people who could get treatment fail to do so – and people with a predisposition towards one or another mental illness are more likely to become mentally ill, without the proper support to prevent mental diagnoses like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

One mental illness often carries the risk of producing another – addiction can be a coping mechanism for mental illness, or it can lead to symptoms of depression and other illnesses, for example. By ignoring the issue and letting it foment in an environment of prejudice, it continues to grow.

We must do more to help our black communities learn about the truths of mental illness, and widen the availability of treatment options beyond the spectrum of rich and poor.

Improving Mental Health and Striving for a United America

Regardless of race and gender, psychiatrists and mental health experts throughout the United States continue to make strides in the industry of psychology and mental health.

Yet while our understanding of the human brain and the human mind – two separate disciplines and objects of study, mind you – continues to widen and grow, the fact remains that to the public at large many mental health issues that could be resolved fail to see the treatment they deserve.

Mental health in America is a huge issue – but has to be examined within proper context when compared globally. While we spend a comparable amount on mental health treatment versus other developed nations, we continue to be plagued by alarming statistics of depression and anxiety.

Partially, the growing statistics have to do with the increased diagnosis of these conditions – we’ve come to better understand what accounts for mental illness, and it’s becoming more obvious that, somehow, we live in a society that is often conducive to bringing about symptoms of mental illness in people with tendencies towards them.

It’s not so much that feigning mental illness is “trendy”, or that rampant misdiagnosis is marking moody people as bipolar or depressed. Millions of Americans suffer from real issues – and our ability to identify these issues has outpaced our ability to treat them. It’s absolutely critical that we don’t succumb to misunderstandings of mental health or promotions of misinformation and stigma.

The effects of stigma can be seen in more intolerant cultures, such as Japan with some of the strongest stigma against mental health in the developed world, and one of the highest rates of suicide in the world (60 percent above the global average). Estimates say about a quarter of the country’s population suffers from depression, and studies showed that every fifth adult contemplated killing themselves – while the general perception of mentally ill people is one of condemnation and demonization.

Another problem we face is an incompetent health care system. Many can’t get the help they seek because they’re financially unable. The American health care system has real trouble when it comes to getting people the help they need for their mental health issues, especially when they’re poor.

That only further discourages people from seeking any help whatsoever – what’s the point in jumping through the hoops to identify a mental illness if only to be told to go buy unaffordable medication?

We must all continue to make a commitment towards the betterment of ourselves, and the people within our community, through a thorough understanding of mental health issues. While poverty plays a large role in mental illness, we can lessen the impact that socioeconomics has on a person’s ability to get help by making treatments more affordable, and by making support groups, self-help and self-care common practices in America.

Issues like trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia hit more people than we realize, affecting millions of Americans. Yet the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health remain, especially in African American communities. It’s important for us to understand the implications and facts around mental health, and support those among us who cannot support themselves.
It all starts with awareness and education. Mental illness isn’t a sentence of doom – it’s a series of medical conditions that can each and all be treated with comprehensive, thorough treatment. By first doing away with the stigma and focusing on instead helping others we can bring communities together, lower suicide rates and help heal broken and alienated families.