Health & Wellness Society & Culture

Are we speaking the same mental health language?

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Study finds African Americans, mental health groups use different terms

There is a disconnect between the way some top mental health organizations describe African American mental health problems and the way African Americans describe them, a University of Georgia researcher has found.

The finding by Rosalyn Denise Campbell, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, points to a potential weak spot in interpreting mental health data. It urges mental health professionals to reexamine how they communicate about and use language to design interventions that address African American well-being.

The researcher compared descriptions of African American mental health issues used by 393 African Americans in response to a survey, and those used in a small sample of online and printed material by three national organizations. When describing many of the same conditions, the organizations used different terms than the survey respondents.

To describe depression, for example, survey respondents used “depression” and “stress,” whereas the organizations — the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the American Psychiatric Association — used “blues” and did not mention stress. To describe the experience of mental illness, respondents used “suffering,” “dealing,” “hurting” and “struggling,” words that appeared infrequently or not at all in the articles.

The survey gathered data from members of a large African American church in the Midwest. Although the responses were not nationally representative and were compared to a single article from each organization, the results “definitely raise important questions,” said Campbell.

“At the very least, we must think about how we are communicating with our potential research participants and clients,” wrote Campbell in the paper. “How valid and reliable are the data we collect, or how helpful can the interventions we design be, if we are not speaking the language of those whom we are targeting?”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress than the general population. Barriers to care include lack of culturally competent treatment and differences in how African Americans describe mental and emotional suffering. Mental health professionals may compound the problem by using terms that don’t fully reflect their clients’ experiences.

“I just want researchers and clinicians to be aware of a potential mismatch in language as we think about engaging and working with African Americans,” said Campbell.

The paper, “Revisiting African American Idioms of Distress: Are We Speaking the Same Mental Health Language?” is in latest issue of Health & Social Work. It is available online at