Mental Health and Blackness: The Stigma

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a holiday much needed if we’re ever going to truly understand and support our loved ones. Mental health is constantly misunderstood due to our inability to ‘believe’ in something unless it’s obvious, unless we can physically see it. Taking a day off because you have the flu is understandable to most people; they can see your symptoms when they take one look at you, or even when they hear your voice over the phone. But taking a day off because you have anxiety is a completely different story.

People generally have a hard time understanding, or even wanting to understand, mental illness. But it’s just a fact that many people of color, especially older generations, refuse to acknowledge things like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders as legitimate illnesses that require support, attention, and even medical treatment. Instead, they are treated as things that can be ‘prayed’ away, things left up to God and Jesus to take care of.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with praying for a loved one who has a mental illness, but making them feel like it’s ‘all in their head’ or that it’s their fault that they’re not praying enough is a dangerous and harmful way to handle the situation, and this technique is all too common among black people.

Adult black people are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, and adult black people living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.  Adult blacks are also more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites (and a society that socially, economically, and politically oppresses black people does not help the situation). Even black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers. African Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, which makes them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Most black people don’t know this, especially black adults. The reason why we don’t know, the reason why we think that mental illness is a ‘white people thing’, is because our friends and family who have mental illnesses do not feel comfortable approaching us and talking to us. They know they won’t get support from us, so they hide their suffering, and we go along thinking that black people are too “strong” for mental illness.

That’s another problem - as black people, we know that we lived through slavery, Jim Crow, and centuries of oppression, so we assume that we have some kind of super-strength that makes us immune to diseases of the mind. These “strong black man” and “strong black woman” themes force us to sometimes ignore our emotions, or assume that they are just temporary feelings. Plus, as black people, the unfavorable, systematic disparities we deal with that always serve us the shorter end of the stick can sometimes temporarily get us down. Some call this “the blues.” Because of this, we make ourselves think that when someone is suffering from clinical depression, what they’re experiencing is the temporary sadness that we all get from time-to-time. We confuse fleeting emotions with actual mental diseases, which is extremely harmful and negligent.

Young adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their White counterparts, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. Along with knowing that those around them don’t even understand mental illness and won’t respond well, another reason for this statistic may be that we don’t understand what we’re going through ourselves.

No one taught us about mental illness, so when we have it, we don’t acknowledge it. We tell ourselves that we need to stop being dramatic; usually, we have a lot of people depending on us or expecting a lot from us, so we struggle to keep a smile on our faces and act normal. We don’t ask for help, because we don’t want people “in our business.”

And, speaking from experience, this only gets worse in the Afro-Caribbean/West Indian community. Usually, when we recognize a loved one has a mental illness, we think that someone did an obeah or voodoo spell to them. We pray for our loved one that the spell is removed and rarely consider getting them help.

As a community, we have to remove the stigma around mental illness. We need to stop blaming ourselves or our loved ones for having mental illnesses and actually start to seek medical attention. Mental illnesses are valid experiences that deserve valid and appropriate concern. Educating ourselves on what it is, what we can do, and how we can help can literally save our lives. Take May as an opportunity to work against the conditioning of your families and your environment and develop an intimate understanding of mental health.