Black History Month: Shining a Light on Past and Present Systemic Problems

A group of smiling black people

Black History Month is an important time not only for SunCloud Health, but for the community as a whole. During this significant month and beyond, we aim to help build unity and connection through increasing awareness, celebrating the achievements of Black community members, and continuing to take conscious actions to address systemic racism within the mental health field.

Who Started Black History Month?

Harvard-educated historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson was inspired to establish Black History Month after attending a 50th-anniversary celebration of the 13th Amendment, where various exhibits portrayed notable events in African American culture. With a mission to amplify Black people’s contributions and achievements, Woodson went on to create what is now known as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH). In 1926, Woodson and ASALH declared the second week of February—which aligned with Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays—to be “Negro History Week.”

During the next 50 years, communities, schools, and organizations started participating in the week-long recognition of African American trials and successes. As public interest grew, particularly during the 1960s civil rights movement, the celebration expanded from a week to a month. In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared February to be “Black History Month,” and Congress passed a law in 1986 solidifying February as Black History Month. Every year since, Black History Month has been celebrated with a designated theme given each year by ASALH.

What’s the Theme for 2024?

This year’s theme is African Americans and the Arts. To read more about this year’s theme, the history of Black History Month, and to access ASALH’s Virtual Festival this year, follow this link:

Black History Month Virtual Festival – ASALH – The Founders of Black History Month

The Significance of Black History Month for Health Care Professionals and Members of the Recovery Community

While every year has a unique theme, each year celebrating Black History Month prompts a time of reflection. By recognizing past mistakes and mistreatment in America’s overall history, we can inform the current culture and transform our society, thereby bettering the present and future social climate for all individuals, no matter their cultural background.

This translates to the healthcare field by examining which demographics are underserved when it comes to receiving quality care. Unfortunately, systemic racism has prevailed for so many generations that, even now, many demographics including people of color are overlooked or simply do not have the same access to medical or mental health care. This is an urgent issue in the U.S. that we and many other leaders in the field are desperately working to combat, specifically when it comes to eating disorder recovery.

There is an established stereotype when it comes to eating disorders, that only Caucasian females struggle with eating behaviors and serious eating disorders. While there is some truth to this stereotype, it excludes every other male and female of different ethnicities who do not match that exact depiction. Part of the reason why this stereotype prevails is due to the alarming lack of eating disorder research on minorities. There has been a huge deficit of vital research until more recent years and, even now, studies are few. However, these few studies have shown that in some age groups for certain eating disorders, there is a higher prevalence for Black people than for white people to have an eating disorder diagnosis.

Recent Study Findings

Several studies on Black women and girls from the early 2000s showed the following results:

• Black girls are about twice as likely as White girls to engage in bulimic behavior.
• Black patients have a younger age of onset for anorexia than the general population.
• Black girls tend to have significantly more severe bulimia symptoms than White girls.
• Recurrent binge eating is more common among Black women than among White women.

Social Barriers to Crucial Care

Outside of the systemic barriers that yield little research and resounding stereotypes, there are social barriers within minority communities as well. Often in minority demographics, cultural values create an atmosphere where it may be viewed as shameful or unacceptable to receive mental health care. For Black community members to arrive at the point of needing professional mental health care, one must first fight perceived standards of Self placed upon them by their communities before receiving treatment. Such standards may cause feelings such as self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, or guilt, and fear of being misunderstood, judged, or mocked by loved ones.

Stephanie Covington Armstrong describes this experience well. An eating disorder awareness advocate and author of “Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia,” Armstrong says this about their struggles:

“In many ethnic communities, it is not acceptable to have issues with food. This translates into fewer people coming forward and being counted and included in eating disorder studies. I had an extremely difficult time seeking help because all my life I had been told I needed to fit into the strong Black woman archetype. I felt like a failure and had a lot of shame because of my bulimia and anorexia… Although eating disorders are a huge problem in the Black community, we are taught that we must deal with our problems ourselves.”

While this is a shared notion in many ethnic communities, the approach of secretly coping is counterproductive to healing the condition. There are many complex factors at play with eating disorders, some that individuals may not be able to cope with on their own, and that require medical attention. We must create a social atmosphere where we normalize hard conversations about such conditions. Only after the struggle is no longer secret, can professionals truly begin to offer necessary support.

Discrimination and Maltreatment in the Medical Field’s Past

There are deep roots of discrimination in the medical field’s history, including unfair treatment and malpractice by white medical doctors against Black patients, all leading to limited access to culturally attuned care in America even today. From unethical and harmful research studies on Black patients to microaggressions, inadequate screening, unequal treatment, and even misdiagnosis, the lack of trust in the medical establishment by Black folks is understandable and warranted.

So how can we help ensure that culturally attuned care is provided? A great start is by having more cultural representation in the medical field overall, but especially in the mental health and eating disorder field, where both Black patients and treatment providers are extremely underrepresented. One way to increase representation is to center the needs and experiences of Black trainees and individuals with eating disorders. Progress on that front has been slow, which is why it is so important for those in positions of power in eating disorder academic centers and clinical settings to hear this as a call to intentional and conscious action.

We Are Calling for a Cultural Change – Starting with Us

We know that with such deeply rooted systemic issues, the only way to change is to start with a top-down approach. There must be more representation of BIPOC individuals administering and advocating for treatment in healthcare institutions. Having a diverse staff allows patients to feel all the more seen, valued, and understood. This also helps reduce inaccurate diagnoses or the chance of having a patient’s true state of being be overlooked.

This is where our work comes in. Every one of us in and outside of this field should be working to disentangle the issues brought forth by stereotypes, stigmas, and underrepresentation. No matter who comes forward needing help, our reaction should be earnest haste to connect them with the right resources that can change their life for the better. Needing professional support is not a sign of weakness; it is quite the opposite. At SunCloud Health, we know how vulnerable it is to seek this kind of care, and we ensure that our staff treats all patients with kindness, respect, and reverence for their unique past.

Recognizing Eating Disorders and Resources

An eating disorder is not something that’s “just in your head.” Eating disorders are real, they are clinically diagnosable, they can wreak havoc on your life for years, and they can be deadly. But most importantly, they are treatable.

It’s important to recognize when you need help. Signs that you may be dealing with an eating disorder include:

• Obsessing about dieting and counting calories.
• Rapid weight decline or weight gain.
• Not wanting to eat in front of others.
• Missing meals and trying to deny hunger.
• Extreme or constant exercising to lose weight.
• Vomiting after meals.
• Increased mood swings.
• Periods of consuming large amounts of food and feeling out of control during these episodes.
• Obsession and dissatisfaction with body image.

If any of these feel familiar, you likely need to seek help. For guidance with next steps, call our experts at SunCloud Health at (844) 576-0279 or contact us online for assistance.

Additional Resources