I know from personal experience just how very important it is to prioritize black mental health. I have experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety since my sophomore year in high school (that’s about a decade now), and have only really understood what that meant and how it has affected me in the past two. I was never diagnosed officially, never sought diagnosis because I felt such shame about how I was feeling for the longest time.
I thought: “Just pull yourself together; just be better. Why are you doing this to yourself ? Just choose to be happy. You’re not crazy.”
I thought: “You don’t always feel like this,” (even though it felt, in those moments like I always had and always would), as though just because my pain wasn’t constant it wasn’t enough to warrant seeking help.
I thought: “So many people are suffering. How selfish of you to think you have anything to be sad about.”
I blamed myself for feeling hopeless, and lost, and alone. And I didn’t know it at the time, but these self-blame narratives are what many people who don’t understand various kinds of mental illness believe. I was engaging in narratives that invalidated my own experience.
Instead of seeking the help I needed, either from a professional therapist, or a friend or family member, I retreated further into myself. I succumbed to the oft circulated stereotype of the “strong black woman”, refusing to let anyone in to see my vulnerabilities. This didn’t make me stronger, it only made me feel more broken and isolated.
Now, having participated in regular counseling, and with a plan to continue it, I feel like I am the strongest and most balanced I have ever been, emotionally. I know much more about my mind, about how it works, about how to combat patterned ways of thinking. I’ve been given the tools to understand and manage my mental health. Just as I consistently take care of my body (daily hygiene, food intake, exercise, etc.), I consistently take care of my mind (yoga and meditation, prayer, writing, talking, etc.).
There is such a stigma about seeking help for mental illness, despite the disturbingly high levels of it in black communities. Black folks are among those at highest risk for various kinds of mental illness (depression, anxiety, PTSD, Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia) and yet, we very rarely seek help. Studies would indicate this is a multi-layered problem. Our collective consciousness of our history, alone, as well as its effects on current society, lead to high risk of psychological distress. Dealing with daily microagressions and continued racial discrimination are also large factors.
“Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today. Socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.” Citation: Link
The lack of help-seeking behaviors are tied to stigma surrounding a fear of being seen as weak or crazy. It makes sense that in a community where most are still trying to keep their heads above water, economically, that there would be less acceptance of perceived vulnerabilities. There is also a lot of racial stereotyping at work in this. We’ve been taught, through both subliminal and outright messaging (the valuing of black bodies as labor and the devaluing of them as human, the “black woman strong” stereotype which is proliferated through our community because of all that black women have endured and survived, the formation of black masculine identity allowing for very little emotional breadth etc.) that black people are “strong”, and that that strength does not allow for vulnerability.
Another problem with care-seeking is the access to appropriate treatment. Many people don’t have access to care they need because they are uninsured. Still others feel that the therapists and psychiatrists that are treating mental illness will not understand us, or will judge us.
“Because less than 2 percent of American Psychological Association members are Black/African American, some may worry that mental health care practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat their specific issues.  This is compounded by the fact that some Black/African American patients have reported experiencing racism and microaggression from therapists. ”
I have, myself, experienced some forms of microagression from therapists who invalidated my experiences. I have spoken to more than one black friend who believed that they couldn’t find a therapist that would “get it”, or that they would be comfortable speaking to candidly.
Despite all of the road blocks, or perhaps, because of them, teaching self-care, and educating our communities about mental health is so so important. This is not something that can wait until we have fought more obvious or “hotbutton” systemic discriminatory practices (such as the school to prison pipeline, or the “war on drugs” and police profiling, etc.). Black mental health is something that needs to be encouraged, needs to flourish alongside other strides we are making toward true emancipation and equality.
The time to speak up is now. The time to take care of ourselves is now. The time to find strength in our vulnerabilities is now.
Having mental illness does not make me weak, it makes me human, and being able to share that vulnerability makes me stronger than I have ever been before.