OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – In recent years, celebrities have brought mental health to the forefront of the conversation on health.

Artists and athletes are laying the groundwork for families to take charge of their mental health.

In honor of Black History Month, we are focusing on mental health challenges in the African American community.

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to report emotional distress and hopelessness.

African Americans living in poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress.

“I’m going to be honest. At first, I didn’t really think I needed help,” said Aphenie Sinegal, 22, who is studying cyber security in college.

Aphenie and her mother, Meloney Sinegal, believe mental health services saved their life.

“It’s OK to ask for help,” said Aphenie.

Years ago, Meloney was in a horrible car crash. Long after her body healed, her mind had not.

The experience triggered anxiety, bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress.

She did not seek help, at first.

“I felt alone. shallow and just like. I don’t know where to go,” Meloney remembers. “I thought that it was for like, crazy people.

A mental breakdown and crisis hospitalization forced Meloney to get the psychological help she desperately needed.

“I grew up in an all Black community just north of Cincinnati, Ohio,” said psychiatrist Dr. Willis Holloway. “It was a low socio-economic community. So, a lot of these kids that I see, I can identify with them. These are the kids I grew up with.”

Dr. Holloway believes access to mental health services is one of the biggest challenges in the African American community. 

“There’s still a fairly large number of African Americans who don’t feel they get treated the same way, particularly in the mental health arena,” said Dr. Holloway.

Historically skeptical of health care, many African Americans are acutely aware of discrimination in the medical field.

It’s a turn-off and often one of the reasons they don’t seek help.

“You want someone you can relate to, someone who understands, someone that knows what you’re going through,” Aphenie said. 

If a patient is seeking a doctor who looks like them, in Oklahoma, that is a significant challenge.

“I think they see themselves as lost in the system. They don’t see where to plug in. They see themselves as a square peg in a round hole,” Dr. Holloway said. “In the State of Oklahoma, there are very few of us and there have been for a very long time. In this town, I could count the number of African American psychiatrists on one hand. I might still be able to count them on one hand. There is just not that many.”

Progress in that area may have stalled.

But when it comes to acceptance of mental health treatment and early intervention for children, there is momentum.

“Those kids are still in the development stages. Their brains are still being shaped and molded,” Dr. Holloway said. “You have an opportunity to put some hard wiring in place that will carry that kid forward hopefully in a positive way.”