BIPOC Resources

Addiction in the Black Community: Origins, Impact and Barriers to Effective Treatment

Updated February 1, 2023

As the United States continues to confront racial tensions, dialogue about police brutality, economic inequality, housing and job discrimination and other issues has become more and more common. One element of racial disparity that has been largely left out, however, is the disproportionate impact of alcohol and drug addiction in the Black community.

This population continues to face comparatively harsher penalties than other cultural communities for similar rates of drug offenses while experiencing many of the factors that contribute to addiction at a much higher rate and corresponding barriers to treatment when they seek it out.

A Deeper Look: Common Causes of Addiction in the Black Community and in General

When we think about the issues that lead to and sustain addiction (socioeconomics, mental health, safety concerns, dysfunctional or fragmented family dynamics, professional mobility and other workplace issues, and more), we see that many of these issues impact the Black community in a very real and direct way.

Data from Mental Health America indicates that over seven million Americans who identify as Black or African American struggled with mental illness in the past year, at the same time the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that over 58 percent of people in the Black community with serious mental illness do not receive treatment. A study from Washington University in St. Louis reports that Black male trauma survivors are significantly less likely to receive treatment than other sex-ethnic groups. Poor mental health is one of the leading predicting factors of substance use disorder.

In addition to macro mental health issues, everyday economic, social and quality-of-life factors that often indicate substance use disorder continue to disproportionately affect those who identify as Black of African American, as well.  Data from the Century Foundation indicates the concentration of poverty is exponentially higher among Black residents in almost every major US major metropolitan area. The Pew Research Center reports that over 30 percent of single parents are members of the Black community. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that pervasive ethnic and racial disparities in education are evident early in childhood and persist through K-12 models, which affects subsequent academic opportunity.

This mosaic of disproportionality can, and often does, lead to increased engagement with illicit drugs (whether it’s through personal use or trafficking) out of a sense of perceived escapism and necessity.

The Back End: Disproportionate Consequences for Drug Addiction in the Black Community

As ingrained institutional inequities create more and more vulnerability to substance abuse, affected populations have also faced disproportionate rates of arrest, incarceration and life-altering substance abuse-related health issues. Data from the Yale University School of Public Health, along many other sources, highlights glaring racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, despite relatively uniform rates of illicit drug use.

As legal consequences seem to affect Black communities, treatment access seems to elude them. Minority communities continue to be less likely to complete addiction treatment due largely to socioeconomic factors. To compound these treatment disparities, the African American and Hispanic population has a greater prevalence of triggering events and socioeconomic characteristics that are associated with greater insurance loss and slower insurance gain. Rather than getting treatment and the help they need, low-level drug offenders in the black community are significantly more likely to face incarceration that can affect their lives forever and perpetuate the cycle inequity that leads to addiction.

A Deeper Look at Mental Health in the Black Community

Just as addiction and substance use continue to disproportionately impact the Black Community, so do a litany of mental health issues and the circumstances that drive them. In addition to collective internalized trauma from centuries of racially motivated aggression, Black Americans are still forced to navigate and maneuver through policies that are inherently biased. 

This translates to factors that directly drive poor mental health outcomes in any community, such including but not limited to income inequality, unfair incarceration, housing discrimination, and many others. These factors play an everyday role through law, culture, and other pervasive vehicles that continue to drive this cycle. 

Income Inequality and Mental Health

It may be simplistic to say that money can buy peace of mind, but the reality is that imbalanced economic policies lead to higher rates of mental illness and, in a cruel irony, less means to get help. There is an established and growing body of research that illustrates the relationship between mental health and income inequality. 

In general, rates of anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health issues are higher among those who struggle with economic insecurity, and these are phenomena that hit the Black Community the hardest. There is also a direct correlation between these economic disparities and substance use disorder. 

Discrimination and Mental Health

Researchers from UCLA among others have long pointed out the correlation between discrimination and mental health, writing: “The malignance of discrimination goes far beyond the initial encounters that perpetuate it. when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. When the mental health of one person is affected, it can produce a domino effect extending beyond that individual.”  

Black Americans live with a legacy of discrimination that has impacted many of the different areas of life that can impact mental health the ability to get help. In other words, when racial discrimination is baked into institutional policy, it’s incredibly hard to overcome. 

Mental Health Resources for the Black Community

On a more positive note, more and more resources are available as the impact of racially imbalanced mental health and substance abuse becomes increasingly apparent. These resources include safe spaces and sources of community as well as lifelines to treatment and crisis intervention.  

The Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA) 

Based in Baltimore, but serving communities across the country, BMHA was established to develop, promote and sponsor trusted culturally relevant educational forums, trainings and referral services that support the health and well-being of Black people and their communities. 

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation 

Named in honor of Boris Lawrence Henson, father of founder Taraji P. Henson, who suffered mental health challenges without resources or support, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation exists to both normalize and improve access to mental health services for Black communities in hopes of eradicating the stigma around seeking help and support.

Black Mental Wellness

Black Mental Wellness was built to provide access to evidence-based information and resources about mental health and behavioral health topics from a Black perspective, to highlight and increase the diversity of mental health professionals, and to decrease the mental health stigma in the Black community.

 Black Therapists Rock

 Black Therapists Rock was developed to organize black mental health professionals towards ACTION in decreasing the stigma and barriers to psychological and social well-being among marginalized communities. They offer programs that address the unique mental health issues faced by the Black Community among all age groups and regions. 

 Therapy In Color

Therapy In Color was created to ensure all individuals had access to mental health therapy by someone who promoted authenticity and cultural diversity. Therapy In Color is about having a community where Black, Indigenous, and people of color come together, learn from one another, and heal together. More than just a directory of therapists, Therapy in Color is a community of healers dedicated to removing the stigma associated with seeing a therapist.

Other Black mental health resources include Therapy for Black Girls, Therapy for Black Men, and more. There are also multiple influencers from the clinical landscape and the arts community that have offer support, dialogue, and engagement regarding Black mental health.

Addressing the Problem: Increasing Treatment and Support

Creating greater accessibility to treatment and creating culturally responsive and intuitive care resources are just one pillar of addressing addiction in Black communities. Recovery Unplugged remains committed to providing customized treatment that “meets patients where they live” in a cultural context. We understand the profound importance that environment and background plays in the development and continuation of substance abuse, and we’re ready to treat you or your loved one as an individual, not a mere collection of symptoms. Contact us today to get the help you need now.


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