I’m not sure how it is in other racial/ethnic groups, but mental illness in the black community is very much frowned upon. But when we get more specific and narrow it down to Africans, it’s almost unacceptable. In African communities unless you’re visibly out of your mind then there’s nothing wrong with you and you need to stop being weak. It’s an “American thing”, we don’t have depression in Africa.
“When I was your age, I was cutting the grass with scissors, but you never heard me talking about depression.”
“What do you have to be depressed about, you have everything.”
“It’s because you don’t pray enough, you need to talk to God”
“Slaves didn’t have Prozac”
“What is a chemical imbalance in the brain?”
These are all of the things that I heard growing up from my parents, from relatives, from media. Apparently depression was only for white people. We did not have time to be depressed. We were first generation immigrants who needed to work 10x harder than everyone else, there was no time to be sad.
From what I can remember of my childhood, I was a happy child. I was always active, always outside playing or dancing. I never wanted to sit down, never wanted to not be doing anything. I was part of many sports teams and with that came a lot of friends. I remember being pretty popular in middle school and the beginning of high school. I got invites to parties, I had sleepovers almost every weekend, I was much happier… at least I thought I was?
I can pinpoint the downward spiral of my emotions to my sophomore year of high school. That’s when things started to get complicated. Suddenly I wasn’t interested in all of the things that I loved the year prior, I wasn’t interested in anything other than sleeping to be quite honest. I LOVED Track&Field and after dominating in middle school, I was so excited to go to high school and try out for the varsity team. Not a lot of freshman made the team, but I knew that I was good enough to do it. I tried out, I made it, and that year I loved it. But come my sophomore year, I never wanted to leave my room, let alone go sprint a 200m.
I stopped talking to the people that I had called my friends since elementary school. I stopped going out, and eventually the invitations stopped coming. The time that I wasn’t spending at school, I spent either sleeping or pretending to be asleep so that everyone would leave me alone. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I just knew that I always felt bad. I cried a lot, I slept a lot, yet somehow I was always exhausted, most days I had no appetite and I began to lose an enormous amount of weight. All of these were textbook symptoms of depression.
My parents saw as my grades and mood continued to fall, they noticed the enormous amount of time I spent in my room. And they called me lazy. According to them, I wasn’t doing well in school because I wasn’t applying myself, I wasn’t trying hard enough. They attributed my disinterest in sports and the other things I had once loved as me being flaky, a quitter.
It was at the request of my high school guidance counselor that my parents finally did something and put me in therapy. Every week, I drove 15 minutes to go sit on a couch and talk to Laura about what was wrong with me. I liked therapy, my parents did not. They never cared to ask about how I was feeling or how my session had gone, rather they reminded me the hourly rate I was costing them just to go talk to someone. It was about a month into therapy that Laura diagnosed me with moderate depression, she recommended that I be put on an antidepressant. As she explained to me what all of this meant, I just sat there and thought about the reaction that my parents would have. Many times in the past I had listened to them laugh at the fact that white people threw pills at everything, I knew that they wouldn’t be happy about this.
Long story short, I never got the antidepressants and that was the last time I saw Laura.
My battle with depression has been a single-person battle with minimal support from my parents. After I graduated and left my parents house, I began to take things into my own hands. Yes, they might not believe it but the way I felt didn’t lie. I needed help and I sought it out myself. I started seeing a therapist at my school and long behold, I was told the same thing that Laura had told me my sophomore year of high school, I was depressed.
But I’m one of a very small population of black people that actually look for the help they need. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Yet only about one-quarter of African-Americans seek the help that they need, compared to 40% of our white counter-parts.
Why? You may ask…
In the case of my parents, they didn’t believe in mental health. To them, I was just sad and being weak. They, as many immigrant parents saw this as a “white people issue.”
But there are many reasons why many black people do not seek out the help they need. Some including religion/spirituality, lack of education, lack of financial resources, and shame.
Many people in the black community believe that anything can be solved by prayer. If you pray long and hard, God will hear you, and take away all of your hardships. Some people believe in prayer more than they believe in science and medicine. When the going gets tough and someone falls ill, many people will turn to faith before they turn to a medical professional. When you reach out to someone in your community, whether it be a family member or someone in your church, their first answer to you will always be “pray about it.”
Black people are a strong people that have been through hell and high-waters, endured the worst, but yet here we are still standing. This is a point of pride for many people, and when it comes to black women, it’s almost an expectation. Black women are taught that they can never show weakness or vulnerability. We are the back-bone of the family, and we have to be strong for everyone. There’s no time to get emotional, you never want to let them see you cry, wipe your tears away and KEEP IT PUSHING. But with all of those pressures comes a heavy feeling of shame and inadequacy… how can I be strong for everyone when I can’t even be strong for myself? We are taught to suffer in silence, behind closed doors. A perfect example of this being Annalise from ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, in court and in the workplace she’s ruthless, as sharp as a knife, and always on her ‘A’ game. But when she goes home and pulls off her wig, we get to see a vulnerable woman… One who suffers from alcoholism, insecurities, and depression. It seems the strong, black woman isn’t so strong after all… Or we’re looking at it wrong, and it’s the weaknesses and how you endure them that make you strong in the end.
I just want it to be okay to not be okay… I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with depression or mental illness. And I know that I am not the only black person who feels as if they have to go through everything alone because the people who they should turn to for support, just aren’t cutting it. I want black people to know that having a mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to hide. Being depressed, doesn’t make you any less of a person, it shouldn’t change the way other people look at you, it doesn’t make you weak… it makes you human.