Madison’s BIPOC community is less likely to seek help for mental health. Here’s why.

Plus, how Madison-area doctors are working to change that

MADISON, Wis. — This weekend marks one year since the first coronavirus case was reported in Wisconsin. The pandemic has placed a major strain on our healthcare system for the past 365 and counting… and not just inside COVID-19 units.

It’s greatly impacted the number of people seeking mental health treatment. However, not everyone is getting the help they need.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations across the country, including in Wisconsin, have been disproportionally affected by the events of the past year.

“It’s always been hard to live and be Black,” said Claude Gilmore, Vice President of Madison’s Black Chamber of Commerce, pausing to collect his emotions. “Everyday.”

Add in a pandemic, plus the ongoing fight for racial equity, and that challenge has been greatly multiplied.

RELATED: One year in, more Americans are struggling with their mental health than anytime since WWII

The high number of COVID-19 cases among BIPOC populations has led to an increased number of people requiring treatment for mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, and addiction are the three most common issues for people in Dane County.

Gilmore explained, oftentimes, members of the Black community turn within for help. “We’ve got a great amount of history of having grandparents and that sort of neighborhood component to help us survive,” he said.

But sometimes, that’s not enough. Professional help is necessary. Only 25% of Black Americans seek mental healthcare, compared to 40% of whites, according to Mental Health America.

The stigma surrounding mental health is nothing new inside the Black community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly battled severe depression during periods of his life and refused psychiatric treatment, even when his staff urged him to get help.

The root of mental health stigma among Black Americans can be traced back to the 1600’s, to the days of slavery. At that time, some people thought slaves weren’t ‘sophisticated enough’ to develop depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. That, of course, isn’t true: Black Americans develop mental health conditions at a rate equal to anyone else. They also experience trauma as a result of living within a society of systemic racism.

“The biggest issue is finding organizations that really, really believe in diversity,” Gilmore said. “And they need to have it in terms of the people they hire, how they train them, and the work they do.”

Locally, Dr. Beth Lonergan, head of UW Health’s Behavioral Unit, is working alongside the hospital’s Chief Diversity Officer to hire more black physicians in Madison.

“It’s difficult to recruit,” Lonergan said. “It’s well-worth the challenge, but it can be difficult. We do have some diversity, but it’s not as much as we need.”

Lonergan is currently working to get her physicians out into the community, so people, especially Wisconsin’s BIPOC population, isn’t expected to come to her.

“It’s normal to have some apprehension about asking for help,” she said. “Even those of us in behavioral health can be bad about delaying or seeking that help.”

One in five people, regardless of race, age, gender, or socio-economic status, will experience mental illness in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Click here for a list of resources available to Wisconsin’s BIPOC community.

Click here for more information about mental illness and a list of ways to find help in Dane County.