1% of psychiatrists are African-American and it's creating a gap in mental health care

1% of psychiatrists are African-American and it's creating a gap in mental health care

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rwenshaun Miller is a rarity in Charlotte -- an African-American man who works in the mental health field.

"We see therapy on TV, and we see it in movies and a lot of times it's an older white male," he said.

Miller entered the field after struggling with his own mental health when he was younger. He first pursued a degree in counseling and then a PhD in psychology.

Content Continues Below

"When I was growing up, especially in the black community, we were always told, you know, especially as a black man, you know, you can only be able to show anger and happiness, and that's it. So you suppress everything else," Miller said.

In a mental health care setting, it's critical to understand his particular type of upbringing.

Nationwide, it's estimated that just 1% of psychiatrists are African-American.

Though many professionals are skilled at cutting through cultural differences, experts say "cultural competency" is a serious issue in the mental health field.

Some people are simply more likely to trust and to open up to someone they can relate to.

"I do get requests, I'd like to see a black female. I'd like to see a black male, I'd like to see someone who's millennial, " Ericka Ellis-Stewart with Mental Health America of Central Carolinas said.

Ellis-Stewart told Channel 9 cultural competency can make a tremendous difference in the success of mental health treatment.

"Do they understand the cultural context from which I'm coming from, do they understand the culture I live in, whether that's your racial identity, your ethnic identity, your religious identity," she said.

The MHACC's website offers a directory of licensed providers intended to reflect the area's diversity.

Ellis-Stewart said Charlotte's growing international community means more diversity is needed among providers and some of the challenges are more basic than people may realize.

"Are there even the words in that language to think about things like depression, anxiety, suicide?" Ellis-Stewart said. "When there aren't even words in the lexicon to address it, how do you have that conversation in the community?"

Perla Castro is with Thompson Child and Family Focus which provides, among other things, mental health services for children.

"Just seeing someone who looks like you automatically breaks down a barrier," Castro said.

The organization recently partnered with Charlotte's Latin American Coalition to provide more Spanish-language mental health care for the families they serve.

"Using interpreters is helpful, but a lot gets lost in translation so having someone who speaks the same native tongue you do, I think, is just key," said Castro.

For Miller, it also means connecting in a different way.

"I understood what seeing a black male therapist did for me, and there's not a lot of black male therapists out there," he said.

Miller is almost always in a T-shirt and jeans, not a suit because he believes it makes him more relatable to the young black men he works with.

"I make them comfortable," he said. "And once they're comfortable they start opening up about any and everything."

And that, he said is when the healing begins.