Mental Illness: Misconceptions of It Being a White Man’s Disease

Mental illness is a term that encompasses a wide range of conditions that affect the mood, thinking, and behavior of individuals. Mental illness can cause significant distress and impairment in various aspects of life, such as personal, social, and occupational functioning. Mental illness can also increase the risk of physical health problems, substance abuse, and suicide.

According to the World Health Organization, mental illness affects one in four people in the world at some point in their lives and accounts for 10% of the global burden of disease and 25.1% of the non-fatal disease burden. In the United States, one in five adults experiences a mental illness in any given year, and one in 25 adults experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with their major life activities.

However, despite the prevalence and impact of mental illness, many myths and misconceptions surround it, especially regarding its causes, symptoms, and treatments. One of the most common and harmful misconceptions is that mental illness is a white man’s disease, meaning that it only affects white men, or that it affects them more than other groups of people. This misconception can have serious consequences for the recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness among people of color, women, and other marginalized populations.

In this article, we will explore the origins and effects of this misconception, the reality and diversity of mental illness across different groups of people, and the ways to challenge and overcome this misconception.

Where Does the Misconception Come From?

The misconception that mental illness is a white man’s disease has multiple and complex origins, but some of the main factors that contribute to it are:

  • The history and legacy of racism and oppression in the mental health field. For centuries, mental health professionals have used pseudoscientific theories and practices to justify and perpetuate the discrimination and exploitation of people of color, women, and other oppressed groups. For example, they have labeled them as mentally inferior, deviant, or dangerous, and subjected them to abusive and coercive treatments, such as lobotomy, sterilization, and electroshock. These practices have created a distrust and fear of the mental health system among many marginalized communities, and a reluctance to seek or accept mental health services.
  • The lack of representation and inclusion in the mental health research and practice. For decades, mental health research and practice have been dominated by white men, who have largely ignored or excluded the experiences and perspectives of people of color, women, and other diverse groups. For example, they have used mostly white male samples to develop and test diagnostic criteria, assessment tools, and treatment interventions, and failed to account for the cultural, social, and environmental factors that influence mental health. These practices have resulted in a biased and incomplete understanding of mental illness, and a lack of culturally appropriate and responsive mental health services.
  • The influence of media and popular culture on the portrayal and perception of mental illness. For years, media and popular culture have depicted mental illness in a stereotypical and stigmatizing way, often associating it with violence, crime, or tragedy. Moreover, they have mostly portrayed mental illness as a problem of white men, while ignoring or minimizing the mental health issues of people of color, women, and other groups. For example, they have focused on the stories of white male celebrities who struggle with mental illness, such as Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, or Heath Ledger, while overlooking or dismissing the stories of celebrities of color or women who face similar challenges, such as Mariah Carey, Kanye West, or Demi Lovato. These portrayals have shaped the public’s attitudes and beliefs about mental illness and reinforced the misconception that mental illness is a white man’s disease.

What Are the Effects of the Misconception?

The misconception that mental illness is a white man’s disease has harmful effects for both the individuals and the society at large, such as:

  • Reduced awareness and recognition of mental illness among people of color, women, and other groups. Many people who belong to these groups may not realize or acknowledge that they have a mental illness, or may not know how to identify or describe their symptoms. They may also internalize the stigma and stereotypes that surround mental illness, and feel ashamed, guilty, or unworthy of seeking help.
  • Delayed or denied access to mental health care and support for people of color, women, and other groups. Many people who belong to these groups may face multiple barriers to accessing mental health care and support, such as lack of availability, affordability, or acceptability of services, lack of insurance or transportation, language or cultural differences, or discrimination or mistreatment by providers. They may also encounter challenges in finding providers who are competent and sensitive to their needs, preferences, and values.
  • Increased risk of poor mental health outcomes and complications for people of color, women, and other groups. Many people who belong to these groups may experience worse mental health outcomes and complications than white men, such as higher rates of disability, morbidity, or mortality, lower rates of recovery or remission, or higher rates of comorbidity or relapse. They may also face greater exposure to stressors and trauma that can trigger or worsen mental illness, such as poverty, violence, racism, sexism, or homophobia.
  • Reduced contribution and participation of people of color, women, and other groups in the mental health field and society. Many people who belong to these groups may have less opportunities and resources to pursue education, training, or careers in the mental health field, or to engage in research, advocacy, or leadership roles. They may also have less voice and influence in the development and implementation of mental health policies, programs, or services. They may also have less involvement and integration in the social, economic, and political activities and institutions of society.

What Is the Reality and Diversity of Mental Illness?

The reality and diversity of mental illness are that it affects people of all races, genders, and backgrounds and that it manifests and expresses itself in different ways depending on the individual and the context. Some of the facts and figures that illustrate this reality and diversity are:

  • One in five Americans has experienced some form of mental illness, with one in 25 experiencing serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Suicide accounts for over 800,000 deaths globally each year, with over 41,000 in the U.S. alone. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide for 15-29 year olds.
  • In 2020, 32.1% of U.S. adults experienced both a mental health condition and substance abuse.
  • In 2019, 15.3% of U.S. veterans experienced a mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or substance abuse.
  • The impact depression and anxiety have on the global economy can be measured in $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.
  • In 2020, 51.2% of U.S. females received mental health services, while only 37.4% of males received mental health services.
  • Young adults ages 18 to 25 in the U.S. have the highest rate of experiencing any mental health concerns (30.6%) compared to adults aged 26 to 49 years, and the highest rate of serious mental illness (9.7%).
  • Females are diagnosed with serious mental health conditions at higher rates than males, 7% to 4.2%, respectively.
  • The percentage of U.S. adults receiving mental health treatment rose from 19.2% in 2019 to 21.6% in 2021.
  • People of color face significant barriers to mental health services, such as lack of access, affordability, or acceptability, and experience worse mental health outcomes, such as higher rates of disability, morbidity, or mortality, than white people.
  • Black people are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, such as major depression, PTSD, or suicide.
  • Latinx people are 40% less likely to receive mental health treatment than white people and face higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
  • Asian people are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white people and face higher rates of stigma, discrimination, and cultural barriers.
  • Native American people have the highest rate of suicide among all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. and face higher rates of PTSD, depression, and substance abuse.
  • LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition as heterosexual people and face higher rates of discrimination, violence, and rejection.