This post has been stewing in my depression-seasoned brain bile for some time, just waiting to get out. I was originally going to start my discussion, about the challenges Black women who suffer from mental illness face, with a half-baked joke like:
My emotionally austere, overly achievement-oriented Black American father and “Blasian” mother don’t believe in depression or mental health care.
OR A ZINGER LIKE:
Another kid at the cut-throat university I attend(ed) just committed suicide!
But I’m just going to skip all the introductions and the transitions and the attempts at decent writing and get to the meat of the issue.
For the first installment of a series that I’m calling “Black Woman Down!” (Because writing skills), I want to discuss the particular problems that being a Black woman who suffers from mental illness presents and why there is a desperate need for an active and engaging discussion about Black women’s mental health specifically. Like a grade school essayist, let me break it down for you in a stilted and disorganized fashion.
As Black woman who suffers from depression and anxiety, I feel that four key aspects of my cultural and social environment stand in the way of my ability to manage my illness.
1. The complete and total resistance that both my culture and my particular family have toward the concept of mental illness.
2. The acceptability of emotional abuse as a parenting style. That’s right I said it, the thing that you are NEVER supposed to say lest racist white people hone in on it and use it as a justification for racism. Let’s put that idea to rest, why don’t we? Racists don’t need fodder for racism, they can whip it up out of thin air—like all bullshit.
As Black people, we need to discuss the emotional abuse (and physical violence) that pervades so many of our families. By this I mean having a full discussion—not just writing familial abuse off with excuses like “Black parents have to be extra harsh with their children to protect them from racial violence,” and “learning how to act right could mean the difference between life and death for a Black child.” While survival in a world in which Black people live under the constant terrorism of white patriarchy may be part of why Black parents are so “harsh” on their children, it has been my experience that the roots of emotional abuse (and corporal punishment) in Black families are far too gnarled and thorny to be untangled with the overly-simple explanation “it’s because of racism.”
I first got the sense that something more complex was afoot (yes, afoot), when my father recounted a story about my grandmother and her sisters bonding, over copious amount of sugar, while celebrating the best “whuppin’s” they had given their children. Just to give you a picture, one “whuppin’”* involved an extension cord and a bathtub. I don’t know if it was the best whuppin.’ There wasn’t an official vote.
3. A lack of a safety net in my community. This road block for Black women’s mental health is closely related the previous two. When those who form the bedrock of your support structure do not believe your illness exists, and thus will not help you access the resources you need when you are incapacitated by your illness, it is easy for you to fall into dire straits. Your symptoms may become unmanageable. You may fall on hard financial times either from an inability to function or because your therapy and medication is breaking the bank.
You find yourself reeling from the dearth of mental health professionals who are attuned to challenges that you face as a woman of color.
For example, one of the many therapists I saw in college tried to equate her experience of growing up German-American in a predominately Italian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia to my experience as a Black kid growing up in a predominately white environment. Though I respect that she experienced prejudice and conflict, I resented the way in which she drew a parallel between her experience and mine in order to invalidate my experience. Her advice was somewhere along the lines of, “Everyone experiences prejudice. Racism against Black people is just like all other forms of discrimination. So get over it. Move on. You are obsessed.”
I’m not saying that mental health professionals who treat People of Color need to be People of Color themselves, but they do need to be attuned to the distinctive scars that racism leaves on us and should be able to negotiate the nuances of our different cultures.
4. Jesus. On my father’s side of the family, Jesus is the cure for all ailments including mental illness. One is expected to surrender (along with the first ten percent of her earnings) all her troubles unto the Lord. Because why do you need a therapist when you have the Bible?!
Okay, put the pitchfork down! I am not seeking to devalue spiritual support when it comes to managing mental illness. However it is time that we start regarding mental illnesses as illnesses in the full sense of the word—as worthy of the same rigorous treatment that other diseases receive. There needs to be some kind of bridge to connect, what has been the traditional bastion of support for most Black communities, to medically-based mental health care.
The four preceding points (woot love that alliteration!) are just the beginning of what I hope will be an engaging discussion about the challenges Black women and other women of color face when confronting mental illness. Over the next few months, I will examine each of these points more closely. It’s time we seriously engage with the silence around mental illness in Black communities in the United States (as well as in American culture at large). We have to go beyond simply acknowledging the stigma of mental illness in communities of color. We need to actively fight it. The only way we can do that is by talking about it and making it visible.
Feel free to jump into the conversation. You don’t have to be a Black laydeh to do so.
*I have no idea how to spell “whuppin'” and I sure as hell am not going to plug it into google.