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The Importance of Juneteenth

The Real Juneteenth: A time to reflect on the impact of trauma on the mental health status of the African American community

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when former slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, meaning they were free. Please note the date: June 19, 1865, more than two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, six months after Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Juneteenth should be a day of reflection, not only in the African American community, but nationwide, of the lingering impact of trauma caused by slavery and continued institutional racism on the descendants of the enslaved.

The California Reducing Disparities Project (CRDP) found that depression is endemic in the African American community, but it may not be recognized as such because of the overwhelming need to be seen as “keeping it together.” In 1896 Paul Laurence Dunbar described this phenomenon eloquently in his poem “We Wear the Mask,” an excerpt of which says:

Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask

Although the outward signs of depression among African Americans may be subtle, its impacts can be severe. According to the CDC, young black men, aged 18 to 25, have the second highest rate of completed suicide for that age group at 15.6 per 100,000, exceeded by young Native American men, at 23.7 per 100,000. Depression is believed to be a significant contributor to the high rates of infant mortality, preterm delivery and low birth weight suffered by African American women and their families. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, African American infant mortality is 11.3 per 1,000 births, while the national average is 5.1. In California, the infant mortality rate among African Americans is almost three times the state average.

High rates of unemployment doubtlessly contribute to depression; black unemployment is persistently double that of whites, and this statistic remains when educational levels are held constant. That means an African American college graduate is twice as likely to be unemployed as a white college graduate.

Awareness of increasing levels of official violence also contributes to depression. According to the Washington Post, there were almost 1,000 fatal shootings of citizens by police officers in 2015 alone. 90 were of completely unarmed victims, and 40 of those were black. While black men constitute only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 40 percent of the unarmed killings by police in 2015.

The knowledge that they are more likely to be the victims of unwarranted deadly force preys on the psyche and contributes to serious depression, not only among African American men, but also among their mothers, wives, sisters and children.

The facts about depression, its causes and consequences in the African American community call for serious action. We must change public policy and practice, and we must immediately improve the level of outreach and culturally competent mental health service to the African American community. Freedom on paper may have been a reason to celebrate in 1865, but Juneteenth 2020* demands real action.

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