It’s Time To Talk About Mental Illness And The Black Community

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As someone who identifies as black female Christian, there’s a struggle within me when thinking about medication and therapy to deal with mental distress. In the churches, they tell you to pray – the devil has his hands on you or your faith isn’t strong enough. I know that not to be true, not for me and not for several other people that identify as I do. I will be the first to admit that sometimes, it’s hard to pray for myself; I understand how bleak reality can be and feel, the unbearable weight of depression and praying to someone who seems to answer all the prayers that you don’t ask for. It almost feels like blasphemy to even say that. You get the shelter, food, money, but the pain doesn’t go away. It lingers like the morning fog in the valleys. The reality is at times, prayer isn’t enough. Exercise isn’t enough. Meaningless casual sex isn’t enough. Eating everything you can get your hands on isn’t enough. Starving yourself isn’t enough. Drugs and alcohol aren’t enough.

My anxiety can be debilitating. There’ve been times where I’ve been unable to breathe, having a panic attack for something as innocuous as knocking on the door to a friend’s house or getting dressed to leave the house to go to the class. My depression can blanket me for days or weeks at a time, coming and going as it sees fit. It feels as though I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again, the world was still dark. Gradually the sky becomes lighter until the sun shines brightly again; the things that happen in my life seemingly have no bearing on when this periods come along for me. Although I am not currently in therapy or on medication, it has been helpful for me in the past and I’d even venture to say that my experience in therapy was more beneficial to me in the long run because I was treating the issues that I was having at its source, not just treating the symptoms.

I work as a mental health professional and I must say, I completely appreciate a person’s hesitation to try medication for reasons that run the gamut: from not wanting to become dependent to being wary of introducing foreign substances into the body. Everyone is different. One combination may work for one person temporarily, while not at all for others. Therapy leaves a similar bad taste in some people’s mouths. No one wants to be stuck with a label, especially something that they may not fully understand. Bipolar, schizophrenia, dementia, even depression or generalized anxiety disorder are worse than curse words to some of us. We don’t want to be seen as crazy, yet many of us do not realize how common the latter disorders are. Clients and people who have never been in therapy alike tell me that going to a therapist or considering medication feels like pasting a “Hello, I’m Crazy” sticker on their forehead.

I took an African-American studies class centered on the black woman in undergrad and up until then, I don’t think I fully realized how strong black people, especially women, are expected to be. I’ve seen the women in my family do it, seemingly with little effort, all my life. But I now know the toll, the high price to be paid for being so strong. Women in our communities are expected to be mothers, wives, counselors, home makers, teachers, counselors, providers, etc. We’re to balance all of these hats, keep a smile on our faces, and bear the weight of the world, ours and everyone else’s, on our shoulders. And black men may have it even harder in a difference respect. At least for black women, it can usually be seen as acceptable if we break down and cry our hearts out then pick ourselves back up and continue on as if nothing has happened. Black men are never supposed to show any “soft” emotions – they’re expected to hide behind a tough persona and never let their feelings out to anyone, ever. It’s taught and engrained in their heads from a very young age to suppress a very real emotional reaction that is perfectly normal and healthy, so that when these young boys become men, they don’t know how to express themselves. This inability to express themselves can lead to unfortunate circumstances, ranging in severity and type.

So the question remains – Who helps us when we want to be weak?

No one if we don’t let them.

We can’t be afraid to try something new if what we’re doing isn’t working. You can only bang your head against the wall so many times before you realize that this way needs to be changed. Stigma tells us that we’re crazy if we take pills. We gotta keep that smile on our face and cry behind closed doors. Don’t you dare let them (whoever they may be) see that they’re getting to you! We’re supposed to keep our personal business in the family. Well, what if there’s an issue within the family and you can’t talk to anyone about what’s crushing you from the inside out. What do you do? You hold onto those negative feelings until they rot you from the inside out. You try to distract yourself with things that can never quite fill that gaping hole in your life. You stay in situations without looking for a way out because you don’t want to rock the boat.

There is help out there; someone is always willing to listen. You just have to take the step – and talk. That’s it! If you do decide to talk to someone and you don’t feel comfortable sharing your story with them, don’t settle. Don’t settle for a mental health provider that’s not going to listen and validate your concerns or someone who doesn’t seem to truly be helping you. Your health – all of it – is far too important to leave in the hands of someone who won’t take the time to do the best they can to help you where you’re at. TC Mark

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