Every part of the body, including the brain, can get sick. We all have emotional ups and downs, but mental health conditions go beyond that. They are medical conditions that change our bodies and brains, altering our moods, and how we think and feel. This can make it hard to relate to others, can change how we function, and change how you feel about yourself. Without proper treatment, mental health conditions can worsen and make daily life more difficult. You may not be able to talk to others, go out, work, etc. However, some people with mental health conditions function okay, but when they are alone, their symptoms get worse.
African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Suicides among black children in the U.S. under eighteen are up 71 percent in the past decade. Black people are also more likely to experience certain factors that increase the risk for developing a mental health condition: homelessness, poverty, trauma, single parent homes, exposure to violence, and racism.
Judgement and Stigma In Our Community
It is a common thought process that African American's need to embody strength, whether that comes from our own kind or a perception based on our history of slavery and basically building our country as we know it. If you exhibit any type of emotion or vulnerability, especially as a black man, you are seen as weak, a pussy (that's a whole different conversation, because as Trevor Noah said, "have you ever come across a pussy? You realize vaginas can start revolutions and end wars. You realize, even on a physical level, the vagina is one of the strongest things that have ever existed. Virtually indestructible...The vagina is frighteningly powerful. You realize that human beings come out of a vagina. Human beings come out and still it continues to work as intended. Do you understand how impressive that is? A human being comes out of the vagina. And still, it continues to operate, it continues to work, after a human has just come out. You’re saying it’s weak? You just sit on a penis wrong and it breaks. 'Don’t be a penis,' that should be the phrase."), or even gay (*biggest eye roll ever* since when does sexual orientation have to do with a health condition? It DOESN'T!).
How many times have you heard a neighbor, auntie, grandma, etc., judge mental health? They say, "we can't be seen as crazy". We can't cry or show emotion, or else we get beat (how are we really creating MORE trauma for being human and showing feeling?) We can't talk about our feelings because "so and so has it worse", or we don't air our dirty laundry to the world. We have to suck it up because our ancestors we slaves and built this country and were slaves and they just sucked it up. And suicide, don't even think about it because it is a white people thing and you're a selfish coward if you even think about killing yourself. (again *eye roll* to this whole paragraph)
I am going to say it ONE time for all the people in the back...IT IS OKAY TO SHOW EMOTION. IT IS OKAY TO CRY. IT IS ALSO OKAY TO HAVE A MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION. We need to change this stigma.
There is also the fear that a mental health condition or seeking help is a reflection on the family. It is seen as an admission of the failure of a family to "handle" problems internally. You don't want you or your family to be seen as "one of those people".
Then you have the spiritual and religious folks who think that "praying away your troubles" will fix everything, or you just have the devil inside you, instead of getting proper treatment for a HEALTH CONDITION. Faith can be critical in the recovery process for someone dealing with a mental health condition, but it shouldn't be the only option to pursue. While many of our faith and spiritual leaders can provide support and help reduce isolation, many don't know jack about mental health which can actually increase stigma and distress.
Even people in the public eye deal with the judgement. Remember when social media lit up exposing Kehlani's relationship business, a contributing factor in her suicide attempt? Then people had the audiacity to say her suicide attempt was selfish, a cry for attention, that and she was a crazy drama queen? NOPE NOPE NOPE. What we SHOULDN'T do is judge or make someone feel worse about their situation. Actually, we don't even KNOW the situation. In fact, that judgement and lack of empathy can help "validate the person's unhealthy behavior. Often times, it can't be controlled because mental health conditions are physical health conditions. Those people on social media would be the first to say RIP if her attempted had succeeded. STOP the judgement.
While I think it is important to rely on your family, community and faith for support, you might also need to seek professional help.
Now, we know that black people distance ourselves from all health care professionals, so mental health providers are no different. We have been mistreated by the healthcare system throughout history (see the Tuskegee Experiment) and even today, many providers are prejudice and even racist towards people of color. I get it. I really do. But honestly, I would rather at least TRY to be healthy than not, or worse, die. Point.Blank.Period.
Another concern is that IF I go to a mental health professional, I want to go to someone who looks like me. It's so common to hear that "no white man/woman is going to understand what I go through so I am not talking to one". Again, I get it. There is a lack of representation in black mental health care providers.
Even during my search for stock photos for this post, all of the photos that I came across were white patients and white therapists. This needs to change, both in media representation and in real life.
Now I can preach all day long, but to be quite honest I was one of these people who was afraid of the stigma.
My anxiety snuck up on me, but it didn’t slowly creep up behind me. Instead, it seemed to smash me in the back of the head so I couldn’t miss it. It’s not the kind of nervousness you get before you take a final exam or speak in front of people. It’s the kind of anxiety that my typical coping mechanisms of writing and listening to music couldn't handle. This couldn’t be ignored. This is agonizing anxiety. It’s an intense and constant state of worry, where you can’t turn your brain off from the rapid fire irrational thoughts. It’s the kind of anxiety where your thoughts consume you to the point where you are physically debilitated. I played out every scenario to every situation in my head, even meaningless tasks like going to get the mail. Sometimes I would fall so far down the rabbit hole of nightmare I forget what I was thinking about didn’t even happen or isn’t real.
At first, I wasn’t going to seek help. I didn’t want to deal with the stigma associated with having mental health problems or seeing a therapist. I didn’t want to be called “crazy.” However, it got to the point where I was desperate for help. I was in a battle with my own mind and was my own worst enemy. Almost every single waking and sleeping moment was spent in a constant state of worry.
Now, I am not afraid to say that I see a mental health provider and I am on medication. I think that everyone can benefit from therapy because we all have some type of trauma to unpack.
We need to recognize that black mental health is different than white mental health. There is little knowledge about mental health conditions, awareness of the importance and severity, and treatments. This leads to the judgement, stigma, and avoidance of treatment even when it is needed. We as a culture need to do better.
While movies like Black Panther (the people of Wakanda are protected from poverty and other risk factors for mental health conditions) and celebrities such as Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, Kehlani, and Serena Williams speaking out about going to therapy and their mental health conditions -- are a great start in closing the gap, we need to do more.
With our history and our trauma, African Americans DESERVE mental health treatment AND medication. We as a people need to stop acting like talking about mental health or seeking professional help is something we would be embarrassed or ashamed about. We do everything in our power to protect our families and friends. We take up a collection plate, start selling plates, have fish fries, make RIP shirts, for EVERY other situation. Black people collect money to put on someone's books when you know they were wrong, but we can't at least HEAR and LISTEN to someone who is depressed? Please, consider mental health when helping your loved ones. Please consider professional help. Especially children, we don't want their lives to end before they even start.