I had plans to write a very nice blog post the stigma of mental health and black families. You know, a few stats, history and my opinion. However, I would only play a role of minimizing an issue that has damaged families and lives for years. I ask as you read you open your mind and heart as you may or may not identify with the topic, however you can somehow be a part of the change.
Feelings and emotions were foreign as it was not something I was not taught. As a young black girl feeling overwhelmed, sad and worthless was translated into “fix your attitude, before I fix it for you”. I struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation for years but knew I could never say those words in a black household. So, I channeled my energy into school with hopes things would change. This worked until my junior year of undergrad and I experienced my first panic attack. What I was able to hide, unfolded for everyone to see. I was so embarrassed hearing “You have anxiety and symptoms of depression. Take this medication to help with the symptoms and contact a therapist”. I know, you may be thinking, this is great! A medical professional provided you with the help you needed. However, it made everything worse, because black people don’t have anxiety, depression or go to therapy. I was told I simply needed to pray, relax and remind myself how blessed I am. I knew I had to do more than that, but I wrestled with thoughts such as, will God still love me? and what will people think? Over time, I secretly started attending therapy. My therapist normalized my feelings and allowed me to see the strength and beauty in myself. After a few sessions, I continued to feel ashamed and guilty that I shared my personal business with a complete stranger. The following year moving to Arizona, what felt like an opportunity to reset my life, I took the time to return to therapy and explore the stigma of mental health with African Americans. Comparatively speaking, African Americans in the US have a disproportionately high amount of mental health issues and concerns, stemming from the slavery era. Back then, mental health was not remotely an option for African Americans. Although it is much more available now, despite being 20% more likely to have serious mental health problems as compared with their white counterparts (NAMI, 2009), African Americans tend to seek help from familial and faith-based sources rather than from mental health professionals, if at all. Many African Americas have been conditioned to seek familial and faith-based sources as a form of protection from labeling and fear of the unknown with mental health services. Due to the lack of mental health attention, many mental illnesses go untreated which has the possibility of creating internal and external conflicts within families. This can also be seen with a lack of love and affection. This was something I experienced first- hand. It took me 23 years to identify dysfunction, chaos and trauma. I couldn’t understand why someone needed to hug their family every time they saw them, said I love you before hanging up the phone and complementing each other. It was weird and I was uncomfortable. It was not until going to therapy, I realized my sadness and trauma were reflected as my inability to love and receive love.
As a Black therapist, still in therapy I can admit therapy is hard. To unlearn the ideology, you are weak, or God will not love you, can be even harder. However, it is important that we choose our hard. Many times, choosing what is hard, is choosing ourselves. Remind yourself you don’t have to face your challenges alone. There is a therapist who will provide a safe space and support you on your journey.