More Reasons Black People Do Not Go To Therapy: Historical Perspective

July 28, 2010

A. The 1840 Census 

It concluded that free Black people at that time were typically insane because they needed the structure of slavery to be sane.  In other words, without the confines of a slavery system Black people were not able be mentally healthy.   This Census was later found, by an honest statistician, to have false information regarding these supposed free crazy Black people; statistics were distorted and in many cases manufactured by the government. 

Of course, we are all too young to remember the 1840 census, but our great great grandparents in many cases passed down a skepticism about putting the understanding of our mental health in the hands of others. 

B. Turn of the Century Psychology and Psychiatry

Common thinking in the late 1800s and early 1900s  supported views that Black people in general were at lower developmental stages than whites and because of this, bondage “was a wonderful aid to the colored man” (excerpted from an article called “Dementia Praecox in the Colored Race”  by Arrah B. Evarts in The Psychoanalytical Review*** Volume 1 in  Sillen and Thomas, 1991 ).  You see how this belief system dovetails with the beliefs from the census.

There was a preoccupation with race in early American psychological periodicals.  Not to be outdone by  The Psychoanalytical Review, The American Journal of Psychiatry (Volume 1,1921), contained equally racist material.  In this journal, Bevis stated:  “All Negroes have a fear of darkness, …[are] careless, credulous, childlike, easily amused, [and] sadness and depression have little part in his psychic makeup.  Dr. Bevis also reported that Negro children are bright and full of life but their mental development starts freezing at puberty.  From then on, theirs is a life of sexual promiscuity, gambling, petty thievery, drinking, and loafing. 

Sillen and Thomas (1991) stated “we now shake our heads  in amazement that such crude racist formulations were believed implicitly by readers of the most prestigious psychiatric journals…we should be reminded how easy it is to distort science in the service of racism”.

C. The assumption that if you are African American, you are automatically poor and prone to suffer with a psychological disturbance. 

Kardiner’ and Ovesey’s landmark book: The Mark of Oppression (1951), highlighted the African American’s “basic personality” in terms of his or her condition in America.  This book completely avoided everything strong and resilient about Black people.

In one case recently, because a family was Black, a family therapist I knew assumed that the family history contained poverty, but in fact it had not (at least not for many generations – think, Huxtable-like).  The family was not so much offended as concerned that the therapist would not be able to see them clearly and understand their issues.  If you had asked this therapist if she felt bias toward certain groups she would have told you certainly not, but her behavior continued to prove otherwise.  She either lacked insight or was a liar.  Either option would be less than ideal for the Black client.

D. The Historical Absence or Lack of Availability of Black Mental Health Practitioners

Let’s face it.  It would be hard to place trust in a group that has a history of producing such biased information.  We are in a different era where there is more tolerance and understanding overall. Many practitioners these days have developed a level of comfort for working with a variety of ethnic backgrounds.  However, this doesn’t mean you should not be careful.  As mentioned in the case above, sometimes people go unaware of their biases. 

Today, only 2% of licensed psychologists in this country identify themselves as African American, and we have had to work up to that number.   It remains somewhat of a challenge to find them.  A good resource is the Association of Black Psychologists,  

Choose therapists carefully. See: Do not limit yourselves to psychologists or psychiatrists.  See: 

 If possible, get second opinions in emergency situations.

Although it was greatly adaptive in many instances to avoid mental health treatment when it initially became available to us, it does not always make sense now.

See also: Top 3 Reasons Why Black People Do Not Go to Therapy


*The Psychoanalytical Review was the first psychoanalytic periodical in English  and was founded in 1913.

Most of the research in this article and much much more may be found in a review of the literature by Thomas, M. D. Sillen, S. (1991).  Racism and Psychiatry.  Carol Publishing Group Edition.

But if you can stomach it, you may read some of these original works of you can find them: 

Bevis, W., M. (1921).  Psychological traits of the southern negro as to some of his psychosis.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 1, 69-78.

Brigham, C. C. (1923).  A study of American intelligence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Evarts, A. B., (1914).  Dementia Praecox in the colored race.  The Psychoanalytical Review.  1: 388-403.

2 Responses to “More Reasons Black People Do Not Go To Therapy: Historical Perspective”

  1. yoy50 said

    ‘ewe weeeee’! Another grand slam post, lady!!!

    I could write a few paragraphs in response but I’ll simply say… point taken and a job well done! I love how you’re slowly but steadily introducing the concept of good mental health to many [of us] black folks who may be embarrassed to admit it, but need this avenue of help for inner happiness, nonetheless.

    I especially love “A. The 1840 Census”… you hit a home run on those words for sure!!! You certainly “made it plain” why we shy away from this type of assistance. 😉

  2. agingr3 said

    Awesome post! thank you for sharing this information. really got under my
    skin, bookmarked… Keep up the good site…

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