In 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford with the goals of honoring the African diaspora and raising awareness for African-American history. The history of Black History Month dates back to 1915 when historian Carter G. Woodsen founded an organization that is known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This organization was dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of Black Americans and other African descent. In 1926, this organization sponsored a national “Negro History Week” that then evolved into Black History Month in the late 1960s partially due to the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of the Black identity (History.com, 2022).
This year’s theme of “Black Health and Wellness” highlights the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine. It also brings awareness to initiatives to help decrease economic disparities and discrimination in medical institutions. These initiatives aim to include having more diverse practitioners and representation in all health sectors.
This theme is especially important this year because with COVID-19, the mental health of many African American families has been impacted. Within the community, there are higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression due to racial health disparities. Ibrahimi and others (2020) found that Black Americans are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 due to factors of systemic racism. At the community level, they lack access to equitable healthcare and healthy food options. At the public policy level, Black Americans are disadvantaged by segregated housing and lack of access to equal education and job opportunities. Compared to others, they are more likely to live in densely populated areas, increasing their potential contact. In addition, Black Americans make up the majority of the essential workforce, including 30% of bus drivers, and 20% of food service workers. These structural conditions exacerbate the impact of COVID-19 on mental health as a consequence of stress, fear, and anxiety, which in severe cases result in PTSD and/or depression (Ibrahimi et al., 2020).
The pandemic isn’t the only traumatic event that’s created a ripple of psychological effects. From history, there are many causes for intergenerational trauma in Black American families. This refers to a type of trauma that affects future generations, regardless of whether they were exposed to the event or not. Families with a history of unresolved trauma, depression, anxiety, and addiction may continue to pass on unstable coping strategies and patterns to their families. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, police brutality, and systemic racism and discrimination have caused effects such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poverty, and fearfulness in the Black community (Bendib & Benia, 2020). Generations who didn’t experience these events firsthand can still feel the effects of them from their families and society. As long as systemic racism is prevalent, the cycle of intergenerational trauma in Black American families does not end.
According to McLeod and others (2020), Black Americans comprise 13% of the US population, yet data suggests that they represent 23% of those fatally shot by police officers. Data on non-lethal encounters with police in the Black community is less available, but can understandably result in emotional trauma, stress responses, and depressive symptoms. The researchers conducted a study to assess if police interactions are associated with mental health outcomes among Black Americans. They found statistically significant associations between police interactions and mental health (psychotic experiences, psychological distress, depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal ideation and attempts), indicating a nearly twofold higher prevalence of poor mental health among those reporting a prior police interaction compared to those with no interaction. Changes in law enforcement policy, improved community outreach, mandated reviews of policy and practice in police departments, and expanded police training initiatives could reduce the potential negative mental health impact of police interactions on Black Americans (McLeod et al., 2020).
Black History Month was established to both honor the achievements and teach the history of Black Americans. It’s important to learn about accurate American history and how these events impacted the mental health of many generations. Unfortunately, events involving racism and prejudice are still happening today. But, moments like Black History Month give us an opportunity to teach and learn about Black history.
For this year’s Black History Month, wide-ranging events include panel discussions on health care disparities, health screenings, lectures on Black pioneers, art shows, children's storytime hours, and yoga and meditation sessions. Additionally, ASALH will host a virtual festival, which includes a moderated conversation on February 19th with the leaders of Black medical schools and professional organizations. Be sure to check these out to learn more about Black history and excellence!