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Mental distress is a term used, both by some mental health practitioners and users of mental health services, to describe a range of symptoms and experiences of a person's internal life that are commonly held to be troubling, confusing or out of the ordinary.
Mental distress has a wider scope than the related term mental illness. Mental illness refers to a specific set of medically defined conditions. A person in mental distress may exhibit some of the symptoms described in psychiatry, such as: anxiety, confused emotions, hallucination, rage, depression and so on without actually being ‘ill’ in a medical sense.
Life situations such as: bereavement, stress, lack of sleep, use of drugs or alcohol, assault, abuse or accident can induce mental distress. This may be something which resolves without further medical intervention, though people who endure such symptoms longer term are more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. This definition is not without controversy as some mental health practitioners would use the terms mental distress and mental illness interchangeably.
Some users of mental health services prefer the term mental distress in describing their experience as they feel it better captures that sense of the unique and personal nature of their experience, while also making it easier to relate to, since everyone experiences distress at different times. The term also fits better with the social model of disability.
The social disparities associated with mental health in the African-American community have remained constant over time. According to the Office of Minority Health, African- Americans comprise 12.9% of the U.S. population, yet they are 30% more likely than European Americans to report serious psychological distress. Moreover African-Americans are more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder, and communicate higher instances of intense symptoms/disability. For this reason, researchers have attempted to examine the sociological causes and systemic inequalities which contribute to these disparities in order to highlight issues for further investigation. Nonetheless, much of the research on the mental well-being of African-Americans is unable to separate race, culture, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or behavioral and biological factors. According to Hunter and Schmidt (2010), there are three distinct beliefs embraced by African-Americans which speak to their socio-cultural experience in the United States: a perception of racism, stigma associated with mental illness, and the importance of physical health. Therefore, discrimination within the healthcare community and larger society, attitudes related to mental health, and general physical health contribute largely to the mental well-being of African-Americans.
Mental health disparities among African-American youth
Comparable to their adult counterparts, African-American adolescents experience mental health disparities. The primary reasons for this are discrimination, inadequate treatment, and underutilization of mental health services. Similarly, children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, often encounter barriers to optimal mental well-being. Discrimination and its effects on mental health are evident in adolescents’ ability to achieve in school and overall self-esteem. Researchers are unable to pinpoint exact causes for African-American teenagers’ underutilization of mental health services. One study attributed this to using alternative methods of support instead of formal treatments. Moreover, Black youth described other means of support, such as peers and spiritual leaders. This demonstrates that African-American teens are uncomfortable disclosing personal matters to formal supports. It is difficult to decipher if this is cultural or a youth-related issue, as most teens do not choose to access formal supports for their mental health needs.
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