Mental distress

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Mental distress (or psychological 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

Social disparities among black people[edit]

The social disparities associated with mental health in the Black community have remained constant over time. According to the Office of Minority Health, black people comprise 12.9% of the U.S. population, yet they are 30% more likely than European Americans to report serious psychological distress. Moreover black people are more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder, and communicate higher instances of intense symptoms/disability.[3] 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.[4] Nonetheless, much of the research on the mental well-being of black people are unable to separate race, culture, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or behavioural and biological factors.[5] According to Hunter and Schmidt (2010), there are three distinct beliefs embraced by black people 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. According to Raymond Depaulo, M.D., African Americans are less likely to report depression due to heavy social stigma within their community and culture.[6] All of these social aspects of mental health can create a lot of distress. 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 black people .[7]

Mental health in the black community is a major issue that is often overlooked due to lack of information, stigmas and socio-economic factors. These factors have been the cause of suicide rates between teens ages 10-14 rising 233% within the last 15 years. Community based issues have also caused black people to be 20% more likely to experience serious mental health conditions than the general population. Among the stigmas within the black people community, there is also a major discord between mental health providers and their black patients in regards to proper diagnosis and treatment. It is an issue that is increasingly getting worse, and one that demands that more be done to fight the problems that these mental health issues cause within the black community.

There are also disparities with mental health when it comes to black women. One of the reasons why Black women tend to hesitate when it comes to mental health support and treatment is the aura of the Strong Black Woman schema or S.B.W. According to Watson and Hunter, Various scholars have traced the origins of the SBW race-gender schema to slavery and have suggested that the schema persists because of the struggles that African-American women continue to experience, such as financial hardship…racism, and sexism.[8] Watson and Hunter state that Black women, due to the strong black woman schema have a tendency to handle tough and difficult situations alone.

Mental health disparities among black youth[edit]

Comparable to their adult counterparts, black adolescents experience mental health disparities. The primary reasons for this have been stipulated to be discrimination, inadequate treatment, and underutilization of mental health services, though black youth have been shown to have higher self-esteem than their white counterparts.[9] Similarly, children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, often encounter barriers to optimal mental well-being.[10] Discrimination and its effects on mental health are evident in adolescents’ ability to achieve in school and overall self-esteem.[11] Researchers are unable to pinpoint exact causes for black teenagers’ underutilization of mental health services. One study attributed this to using alternative methods of support instead of formal treatments.[12] Moreover, Black youth described other means of support, such as peers and spiritual leaders.[13] This demonstrates that black 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.[14]


  1. ^ "Mental Distress Changes". Retrieved 2010-06-01.
  2. ^ Goldberg, D (2000). "Distinguishing mental illness in primary care". BMJ: British Medical Journal. 321 (7273): 1412. doi:10.1136/bmj.321.7273.1412. PMC 1119126. PMID 11187100.
  3. ^ Shim et al., 2009
  4. ^ Hunter & Schmidt, 2010; Gonzalez et al., 2008; Shim et al., 2009; Griffith et al., 2009; Levin, 2008
  5. ^ Griffith et al., 2009
  6. ^ "Black And Depressed: Overcoming The Stigma". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-03-01.
  7. ^ Hunter & Schmidt, 2010
  8. ^ Watson, Natalie (2015). "Anxiety and Depression among African American Women: The Costs of Strength and Negative Attitudes toward Psychological Help-Seeking". Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 21: 604.
  9. ^ Seaton et al., 2008; Thomas et al., 2009; Wu et al., 2010; Alexandre et al., 2010; Freedenthal, 2007; Hughes, 1989
  10. ^ Bridges et al., 2010; Thomas et al., 2009; Dotterer et al., 2009; Rumbaut, 1994; Nicolas et al., 2009; Seaton et al., 2008
  11. ^ Seaton et al., 2008
  12. ^ Freedenthal, 2007
  13. ^ Freedenthal, 2007
  14. ^ Silverman et al., 2001

External links[edit]