On My Mind Tearing Down the Stigmas of Mental Illness

Mental health is often misunderstood and stigmatized within the African American community. As a behavioral health professional with 20 years of experience, I have seen firsthand how these conditions can impact lives of those, both young and old.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one out of five adults live with a diagnosable mental health diagnosis in any given year. Since January of this year, the numbers of people experiencing depression and anxiety, according to some sources, have doubled. And the African American community is not immune. Generations of historical trauma, oppression, and Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, combined with ever present social determinants of health, all add up to a perfect storm of distress for many of us.

My Mental Health Journey 

I include myself in this statistic. I live with co-occurring bipolar and addiction disorder. I experienced my first episode as a college freshman in 1981. I spent the next 7 years cycling in and out of Buffalo area mental health hospital units and was even a patient twice at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. It was not until mid-January 1988 when I was introduced to 12 Step recovery that my life began to take a fortunate turn.

As a result of my experience in recovery, I entered the field of addiction counseling in 1992. It was here that I learned how to help others implement the tools that would support their wellbeing. 

Since that time, my career has had several twists and turns, including working in higher education for twelve years, but because of my simple desire to let people know that “recovery is possible,” when I ventured into the world of mental health advocacy and training in 2008, little did I know where things would lead.

What I Have Learned

One of the most critical lessons I have learned in my journey of recovery is that finding mental and emotional wholeness is not something to be taken for granted and cannot be done alone. I have discovered the value of counseling and having someone who isn’t trying to give advice or tell me what to do. Through this therapeutic process I am able to learn what works best for me.

It’s OK to Ask and Give Help 

I have also discovered that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. We, as a community, need to get over the belief that if someone is struggling mentally and emotionally, they don’t need our help. We need to hold each other up. Lord knows there is enough going on in the world that we can all use a shoulder to lean on. I would not be where I am at today if it wasn’t for the support I received from my family and friends over the years. No one does this alone.


If you are reading this and find yourself in need of help, know that there is always hope for a better way. If you are looking for support and don’t know where to turn you can contact Mental Health Advocates of WNY at 886-1242. Never give up!

Karl Shallowhorn is the President of Shallowhorn Consulting, LLC, the Chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition and hosts the podcast, Mental Health Verses https://open.Mental Health Verses

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