Mental Health while Black: It’s just not “a white thing”

My father passed away from a short battle with cancer that spread all over his body when I was a small child. I can recollect the many great memories I had with my father in the short amount time that I had with him- such as him taking my sister and I to the park and to the zoo in warm weather, visiting our family in Queens for the holidays, making homemade pizza, and playing the piano with him. But half of the memories I had with him were watching him slowly die. That’s where everything all started.

We didn’t have time to properly grieve, especially with my father’s death turning my mom into a single parent. My sister and I grew up in a household where feelings weren’t really talked about or acknowledged. “Staying strong and sucking it up” was the main motto in our household. There was a lot of emotional neglect and disconnect, which impacted and affected my mental health later on in life. That- along with other life challenges and trauma that I went through along the way and into my adulthood. But I’m not writing this article to talk about me, nor am I here to tell you my whole life story.

Just from talking to my close friends and peers that are of color (African American/Native American/Hispanic/Latino/etc.), they have openly expressed to me how they feel like they are not being supported, or feel as though they cannot get support from their families when it comes to their mental health and depression. Mostly because of the fear of being shamed or judged, and that’s a whole problem in itself.

Common things I’ve heard people say while watering down and shaming mental illness in communities of color are not limited to but include:

“That’s just for white people”

“Just pray on it”

“It’s all in your head”

“Mental illness is for the weak”

“Our ancestors have been through much worse.”

How does that possibly better the situation at hand, right now? African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services. Especially with African Americans leading the country with troubling statistics in areas like unemployment, child abuse, racism, and domestic violence, all of which can exacerbate stress and depression. We can’t also forget about the lack of access to mental health treatment to those in impoverished neighborhoods as well. Yet, adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts.

So why is mental health such a taboo topic within communities of color? There are a series of reasons. But the biggest one is the fact that the generations before us not only saw, but taught us that keeping in pain and not getting help is being strong. We have normalized suffering.

Let me tell you something, and just a side note from me- not crying, not going through the motions and emotions, and not asking for help doesn’t symbolize strength at all, actually. Holding in all that pain in and carrying that emotional weight and unresolved trauma is only going to break you. If not sooner than later.

This may be a hard bullet to bite, but I do believe we can hold ourselves more accountable. We can do that by educating ourselves and being more aware, and by learning how to support others.  Just because mental health is not something you can always physically see, it doesn’t mean it’s not valid or real.

Although classic and designed systematic oppression along with blunt and under-toned racism is definitely a contributing factor to the deterioration of the mental health with people of color- we cannot point the finger, or blame the white man for the lack of support within our own communities. We need to break the negative stigma and outlook on it, opposed to judging it, running away, or brushing it under the rug.

With the things that people of color already have to deal on a day to day basis with being minorities, and some of us being a double minority alone (meaning of color and also on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum), we need better support. We need to create better support and make more safe spaces for each other. Not just for our generation, but the generation coming up behind us.

Let’s love.

Taja Nicholle


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