Informal support may protect blacks with mental disorders

Blacks with mental disorders often find comfort from their family and friends, but this support may result in them avoiding professional help.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University investigated the use of professional services and informal support, which is help from family and friends, among African Americans and Caribbean blacks with mood, anxiety or substance use disorders.Support from family and friends offers one advantage—it may play a protective role against the disorders developing further, the study indicates.

With more than 60 percent of blacks in the sample relying on informal support alone or with other professional services, the findings “suggest the presence of a strong social fabric that may buffer individuals from mental health problems,” said Robert Taylor, a professor and associate dean at the U-M School of Social Work and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research. It also provides help in a time of need, he said.

The study examined the use of four help-seeking options: professional services, informal support, both options and no help. Using data from the National Survey of American Life, the national sample included 1,096 African Americans and 372 Caribbean blacks with mental disorders.

Forty-one percent of respondents, or 598 people, used both options. Fourteen percent, or 197 people, relied on professional services, and 23 percent, or 339 people, used informal support only. Twenty-two percent, or 334 people, did not seek help, the study indicated.

The researchers could not determine if respondents who used professional services and informal support did so at the same time or on separate occasions. Lead author Amanda Woodward, an assistant professor at MSU’s School of Social Work, said it was also impossible to know the extent to which respondents’ mental health needs were met if they only used informal support or didn’t seek any help.

The results varied by the respondents’ characteristics. Those who relied exclusively on informal support were, on average, younger (about 35 years old) than those who used other help sources (about 41 years old).Men were less likely than women to seek help, and almost half of women used both professional services and informal support. If men sought help, they often relied on informal support networks.”

This could pose a problem if men have a serious mental illness that requires professional help,” said Harold Neighbors, a professor of health behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health. He also is director of the Program for Research on Black Americans at the Institute for Social Research.Focusing on the disorders, blacks with a substance use issue did not seek help, as compared with those with only a mental disorder or respondents with both mental and substance disorders. Almost three-quarters of respondents with a severe 12-month disorder used professional services and informal support.

Family support played a significant role for blacks with mental disorders. Those who had frequent contact with family used both professional services and informal support, or only informal support. Individuals with less frequent contact with family members used professional services only, the study indicated.

The other researchers are Kai Bullard, formerly a post-doctoral fellow of the School of Public Health; Linda Chatters, a professor at the School of Public Health and School of Social Work; and James Jackson, director of the Institute for Social Research.

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