Normalize Talking About Black Mental Health

(This was an essay I pitched for Huffington Post about BIPOC Month and what it means to me. I didn’t make it to the final process of having my work published. But, that’s fine. I wasn’t going to put this essay away.)

Growing up in Detroit, mental health was not discussed. When I was eight years old I started showing signs of anxiety and depression. But I never understood why. I would say the same prayer twice a day because I feared that if I didn’t, something bad would happen to me and my family. I washed my hands and used hand sanitizer all the time because I went through an obsession with germs. My mother suspected that I had anxiety disorder. But, I went undiagnosed for years because we did not have access to a psychiatrist. I spent a lot of my childhood being anxious and sad. The slightest mishap made me fear life. I dealt with social anxiety from my fear of being rejected by people, so I’d avoid socializing. I quit activities like drama club and gymnastics because my social anxiety made me want to hide in my room away from people. I’d isolate myself from my friends because I was upset with everyone even though I didn’t know why. I couldn’t help myself because I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I thought that I was supposed to be sad. I still have a hard time convincing myself that it is okay to be happy because I have been around so many unhappy people. Unhappiness as a Black person is normalized. A lot of us have convinced ourselves that we weren’t meant to be happy or even content.

Mental health is a taboo subject in the Black community. Black people like my father didn’t see mental health as a priority. This comes from decades of the Black struggle. We are taught to be strong. Our ancestors did not have the time to unpack our emotions and our pasts because they were trying to survive. Talking about my emotions and mental health was seen as pointless to my father. That’s what my parents and their parents were taught. To be strong, you have to hold it in, stop “complaining”, and keep moving. From generation to generation, we normalized sadness and anger in our community. Our generational trauma has not been unpacked.

I share collective trauma with my ancestors from centuries of oppression that continues. I have been affected by mass incarceration. I have family members I will never meet because they died in prison. I have family members I have never met because they’ve been in prison since before I was born. I spent time being angry that my brother was given an excessive amount of time in prison for a misdemeanor. I remember the anxiety I had when he didn’t send me any letters for months because I feared he was dead. I have witnessed the effects of divestment in Detroit after white flight. I have watched the decline and the “revitalization,” known as gentrification. The erasure of my culture and being out-priced from my old neighborhood. I fear being pulled over by the police when I finally learn how to drive. 

I share collective trauma with the many Black girls and women who have experienced sexual abuse. According to a study, one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of eighteen. I am a part of that statistic. I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder because of that painful experience. I feel paranoia walking alone from being harassed and followed by strange men since I was eleven years old. 

I think about my relatives who were affected by the drug epidemic. No one considered what led them to substance abuse. We just turn away and judge them. We don’t ask them what memories or feelings they could be trying to mask with drugs. We don’t think about the different effects of living in an environment heavily affected by racism. We don’t think about the effects of a lack of resources, such as good paying jobs, quality education, or access to mental health care. We don’t consider the personal trauma they may have experienced. Everyone has their own way of coping, even if it is unhealthy.

I have a hard time opening up about my mental health to other people. I don’t feel comfortable telling people that I’ve been seeing a therapist and taking medication for years. Many people have such a negative view of people with mental illness and I don’t want to be thought of in that way. I have come to accept that I am mentally ill, but there are times where I still feel shame. I felt shame when I started taking a pill for depression daily and one for anxiety twice a day. I didn’t want to accept that my mental health was in a bad place.I was embarrassed when I had to go to the emergency room because my panic attacks were non-stop.

 In our community, anxiety and depression is often seen as being weak and using excuses. For years, that’s how my father viewed my mental illness. It was difficult for me to talk to him about it because he didn’t see it as a real problem. As I got older, my father began to listen and understand the effect mental illness had on me. My mother has always been supportive of me. But there are still times where I have to argue about how my mental illness affects me. I have trouble explaining to both of my parents why I skip classes when depression tells my body to stay in bed. I couldn’t explain to them why I quit many customer service jobs because it made my anxiety worse and led to me breaking down in bathrooms, sometimes in front of my co-workers and customers. I felt ashamed to show that weakness to strangers. I was taught that crying in front of people was shameful. No one should ever see your weaknesses. My mental health and trauma affects the way I deal with romantic relationships as well. I fear that my mental illness would be too much for my future partner to deal with. I fear they won’t understand why I obsess over everything and go into bouts of sadness. Will they understand why my trauma makes it hard for me to trust men?    

As time goes on, talking about Black mental health is becoming normalized. Where we don’t have mental health resources, the community creates their own. Black mental health professionals have created their own organizations that provide free mental health care to the Black community, such as Sasha Center and Healing by Choice. Over the years, I have met more Black people who deal with mental illness through apps like Instagram and in person through activist organizations. It makes me feel less misunderstood. They understand how the experience of being Black, a Black woman, or Black and queer affects mental illness. I now have people to confide in and relate to. Those friends, my therapist, and my mother have taught me  healthier ways to cope with my mental illness. I now practice self care everyday. That includes deep breathing and knowing when to give myself a break from work. What I have learned is that I do not have to let anxiety, depression, or trauma control my life. It is something I may deal with for the rest of my life, but I won’t let it keep me from being happy. There is still beauty in my life and I know that I am not alone in this struggle. I would like to do more to help destigmatize mental illness. I think writing this essay is a good start.

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