Black History Month

February is Black History Month. Although it has been a part of the US’s national culture for over 50 years with origins stretching back over 100 years, in some ways, Black History Month remains controversial for some. The topic of Black History Month shines a light on other issues as well. In particular I’d like to discuss the struggle for mental health in the face of continued issues of race.

Recognize that mental health can be a struggle for anyone

First let’s be clear. Mental health can be a struggle for every human being, even though different cultures prioritize mental health in different ways. Mental illness does not discriminate based on age or race; it touches all aspects of human beings’ lives, regardless of whether we’re rich or poor or young or old. That is not a debate. But today we narrow the focus to talk about one part of our society.

Be aware of the intersections of race and gender identity with mental health

This month, we want to be additionally aware of and encourage others to be aware of the intersections of race and gender identity with mental health.

Research shows that there are many factors involved in determining how well a person will fare when it comes to their mental health. In addition to biological factors like genetics or brain chemistry, there are also environmental factors such as childhood experiences or traumatic events that can contribute to poor mental health later in life. [1]

Racism has been shown to have an impact on people’s ability to cope with stressors; for example, black Americans who experience racism were more likely than those who did not experience racism have higher levels of stress hormone cortisol; feel less optimistic about their future prospects; have poorer physical health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes. [2, 3, 4]

If we factor in gender and other intersections, the issue becomes even more complex. Studies show that racism and gender make a particularly harmful combination for mental health. [5, 6, 7]

Keep learning about the connections between Black history and mental health.

This year’s theme for Black History Month is “Black Resistance”. We can look back on the history of the Black Diaspora, as they were unwillingly scattered across the Americas for centuries and see how African Americans have used resistance in both big and small ways to preserve their personhood and wellbeing, rights and culture. 

On social media this month, we highlighted two historical figures in the Black community that worked to better mental health through education for African American children in their community using their research in psychology.

The first one we recognized was Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD – the first black woman to earn a degree in psychology. After teaching in public school for 18 years, she returned to university to pursue her PhD in psychology, which she earned in 1933. Dr. Prosser’s work was influential in the landmark case of Brown vs the Board of Education, in 1954, bringing an end to segregated schools in the US, in policy if not yet in practice.

The second person we recognized this month was Dr. Francis Sumner, PhD, known as the Father of Black Psychology. In 1920, he was the first black man to earn his PhD in psychology. His experiments with black children became an important part of the evidence used by the NAACP in their legal campaign that advocated for equal education for all children. This was the campaign which came to a climax in the case of Brown vs The Board of Education. 

Black History Month Origins

Black History Month has origins long before it was nationally recognised in 1976 by the then president, Gerald Ford, during the United States Bicentennial. According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History:

“The story of Black History Month begins in Chicago during the summer of 1915. An alumnus of the University of Chicago with many friends in the city, Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington, D.C. to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. “

This was fully 60+ years before the country as a whole recognized this movement officially. You can read more in depth here:


We acknowledge that mental health can be a challenge for anyone. We also recognize that the additional burden of racism is hugely impactful on the mental, physical, and emotional health of people of color in American society and there are still many barriers facing the African American community today. We celebrate that throughout history members of the African American community have led with scholarship, perseverance, science, technology, poetry, art, literature and so much more as acts of resistance to the definition the culture at large has tried to place on them.

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