Growing up black, I had a distorted view of what mental illness was. I often felt empty and broken, but I figured that was normal. “Mental illness” is often synonymous with “crazy”. Because of this, I was often hesitant to seek help.
But mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and it certainly shows itself to the black community.
It can be easy to focus on the overarching issues that trouble us, that we forget about the hidden ones.
At a surface level, this makes sense. We’ve conquered some of the most challenging times in human history. Slavery. Jim Crow. And we prevailed. Therefore, as African-Americans, we withstand anything thrown our way. For generations, we have faced hardship and tribulation. And for generations, we have overcome, despite the odds. Although we’ve been broken and beaten, tossed and ousted, we keep going.
This is highly encouraging, but it can also blind us. If overcoming obstacles shows our strength and fortitude, then succumbing to them shows weakness and fragility.
Black don’t crack. That’s what we’ve been told all of our lives. To be black – a true African-American – we must be strong and powerful.
A brick wall.
Sadness and sensitivity is everything opposite. Soft. Weak and fragile. Definitely not black. This stereotype of blackness often shapes how we interpret our emotions. If we’re mad, we fight. If we’re confused, we pray. If we fall down, we get back up.
But if what if we cannot get back up on our own?
In 2017, nearly 14% of African-Americans, over 7 million of us, had a diagnosable mental illness, yet only 1 in 3 were able to get treatment. This number is expected to rise if we don’t address our stereotypes.
With everything that African-Americans have gone through, we hold a great number of inner battles and trauma. But that doesn’t mean we have to hold it in, either.
We can cry. We can give ourselves a break. We don’t have to hold everything in. When we fall, we don’t have to get back up on our own.
There’s no shame in telling someone you’re hurting, and there’s no shame in seeing a therapist.
Therapy can help us understand a lot of things about ourselves. It can help grasp and contextualize reality. As African-Americans, we must be more open about with our emotions, and accepting of them. They’re present and real, and they don’t have to be a consistent part of our life. We must reframe our thoughts as human. Only then can we begin to treat what is happening.
When I first began to realize that something was off, I was often told by my black peers that I wasn’t “really black”. Because being strong meant you don’t show pain, I was ousted. I talked too white, I cried too much, I was sensitive and awkward. This led to a lot of bullying, that brought on a good amount of problems of its own.
One thing that made it difficult was not seeing myself represented with mental illness. I believed mental illness was a “white person’s disease” because I only saw my white peers talking about it. I didn’t think it affected me, and I assumed what I was feeling was normal.
But things are changing – more African-Americans have begun to speak out.
TV Personalities like Oprah Winfrey and athletes like Demar Derozan are just two examples of leaders who have opened up about their pain. They’ve been met with an outpouring of support. The more people begin to speak out, the more the norm will begin to shift to a more welcoming attitude.
Being strong doesn’t mean we have to hide our hurt. Mental health is exactly that. Health. If you get the flu, you take the steps to get better. Not treating our illness won’t let us enjoy the freedoms we worked so hard for.
Knowing this, we must keep an open mind in talking about hurt and pain to our African-American peers. It’s perfectly okay to tell others we are hurting, and to seek help. We will prevail.
This Black History Month, we want to take an extra step in acknowledging mental health in the black community. We want to make sure we make mental health care as diverse as possible, and accessible to all people of color.
The UniWellness team hopes that you’ll take advantage of counseling services and schedule an appointment today.