Mental Wellness or Mental Hellness?

As a psychologist and minister, I spend quite a bit of my time having dialogues with clients or co-laborers about mental health and wellness.  Just last evening, during a planning meeting for an upcoming mental health conference, I was discussing the importance of clinical interventions and accidentally said “mental hellness.”  Yes, before I knew it, I’d made a classic Freudian slip and created a neologism! A new word (at least for me), but not such a new concept.  I am often painfully aware of the “hell” that we are going through as a society as a result of the mental illness that exists across our communities. Sometimes our pain results from a diagnosis of a mental disorder. At other times, our pain is connected to grief and loss, relationship challenges, and/or violence in our homes and neighborhoods.  Since May is Mental Health Month, I’ll say a bit more this week about mental disorders.

At some point in our lives, or in the lives of our loved ones, the odds are that someone will be diagnosed with mental illness.  About 44 million U.S. adults have a mental health diagnosis.  However, not all of these persons received treatment.  Only about 60% of adults and 50% of youth ages 8-15 receive mental health treatment in the previous year.  This trend is also recognizable in the African-American population.  In 2014, about 16% of African-Americans had a diagnosable mental disorder.  Sadly, the percentage of African Americans who were actually diagnosed and received treatment was much lower–about half of the number of Whites receiving treatment.

Part of the challenge of our getting the help we need at these crisis moments is the stigma that is associated with undergoing evaluation by a mental health professional (Armstrong, 2016).  We feel that discussing mental challenges is taboo, or we fear that others will think we are crazy.  We resist the label of a psychiatric diagnosis, choosing instead to continue our own suffering, and that of our family and community members.  Even if we receive a diagnosis, we are less likely to pursue treatment, for several reasons.  Often, even under the Affordable Care Act (still in effect as of this writing), millions of African-Americans have been uninsured or underinsured.  Persons with Medicaid, public insurance for low-income individuals, occasionally have difficulty identifying therapists who accept their insurance.  If affordability is not an issue, therapist suitability often is.  While much healing can occur with anyone skilled in the art and science of psychotherapy, we usually find it easier to connect with another person who looks like us.  Ignorance about mental disorders and how they are classified is another barrier.  Within our religious traditions, we sometimes understand mental disorder to be explained by demonic possession.  With the scientific and technological advances of this age, we now have much more sophisticated methods for describing and classifying the illnesses mentioned in the Bible.  However, persons of faith are occasionally reluctant to seek answers or help outside of religious or spiritual realm.

Yet another reason that we may be reluctant to reach out for help in increasing our mental health and wellness is that we are afraid of the unknown, that is, what to expect when we contact a mental health professional.  Who do we call? What questions should we ask before the appointment? How might we feel before, during, and after the experience? I will address these questions in my next blog post.

Until then, be well!

À votre santé (“To your health”),

Dr. T

Tonya Armstrong


Armstrong, T. D. (2016).  African-American congregational care and counseling: Transcending universal and culturally-specific barriers.  Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 70(2), 118-122.


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