Black Mental Health – A Personal Essay
It’s hard to write about something that you were told all your life you didn’t really feel. I’ve been depressed since middle school, I get this bone-deep sad feeling that wraps me up and suffocates me until I feel like screaming. Sometimes it happens a lot, sometimes I go months without feeling it. I get restless and can’t sleep and when it’s really bad there’s a constant buzz in the back of mind that drives me wild. It’s almost like I become a completely different person.
For a long time, I tried to pretend it was just a bad mood. I tried to view my depression as something that would pass. Something that would eventually stop. But once I got into year three of my depression only subsiding and never really going away, I had to come to terms with maybe this was something I’d have to deal with for the foreseeable future. I also had to accept that maybe feeling sad was putting it too broadly and if I wanted to at least manage it, I’d have to look into it deeper.
When I was younger, I was just moody. Then in high school, I was just being a teen. In college I was lazy and now, I’m just a mess. All words that have been used to describe me so that the word depression isn’t brought up. My family moves around that word like ninjas. They cover it with synonyms and downplay it even when it manages to be said. Not only is it harmful but it’s also confusing. I spent years thinking depression and mental illness were bad words. I spent so much time believing that they were things that only happen to white people. Anytime there was a discussion in my family about mental illness it always ended with some variation of “that’s white people shit”. There are even instances today where the conversations still end that way.
I spent a lot of time thinking that there was something wrong with me. I was the only person I knew in real life that was depressed. Once I got a computer and began to explore the internet I learned of other people around the world having depression but it’s still hard to truly connect through a computer screen. At least it is for me. And everyone around me seemed to be happy and loving life to the fullest. I felt alone even when I was surrounded by those I considered my closest friends. When I would try to tell someone about how sad I was feeling, the words would get stuck in my throat, they would tangle my tongue and struggle to make it past my lips. I feared what my friends would think of me if I let them know the kind of sadness and hurt I was feeling.
Because mental illness was such a stigma in my family and all around me, I had to find a way to deal with the deep sadness I felt. What I turned to was definitely not the best thing, but it did help. I was in 10th grade the first time I self-harmed. I remember I’d read about self-harm in the act of cutting and I remember the post describing it as a way to feel something again. Back then I desperately wanted to feel something other than sadness, so I started cutting. At first, I was extremely careful about it. I only did it in the dead of night when I knew everyone in the house was sleep. I locked the bathroom door, played music and turned on the shower to make it seem like I was taking a late night bath. I would disassemble plastic shaving razors and keep them in a music box near my bed. And I only cut in one specific area on my left arm, never anywhere else. I did this for the better half of seven years. Over time though, I noticed that the few times I failed to properly hide my scars, no one said anything to me. My mom never mentioned the marks, nor did my aunts or uncles. Not my cousins or my friends, anyone who accidentally glanced at them always looked away quickly. Not even my own boyfriend who constantly held my left hand said anything. It was just another taboo subject to be swept under the rug.
My reasons for self-harming changed over the years but the need for it became constant. From my abusive ex and his manipulating ways to losing close friends, developing severe anxiety and having a mental breakdown; the only thing that kept me grounded was the marks I cut into my left arm. I’d thought that once I was single and free from abuse then I wouldn’t have to harm myself anymore, but I started having panic attacks and dissociation almost daily. The deep sadness was still there and whilst in the middle of a panic attack that sadness took on a whole new level. When you’re panicking, everything is bad. Absolutely everything, even when you know for a fact you’re overreacting, if you’re caught in the middle of an attack your mind won’t let that logic surface. It just won’t.
My battle with depression, anxiety, and self-harm really took a turn when I had my mental breakdown. I spent an entire summer in a thick fuzzy haze, I never knew what day it was and time seemed to drag. I would spend days shut up in my room staring at the ceiling in silence. It was the first time I truly felt lost and hopeless. When I tried to talk about it with my aunt, she disappointed me for the first time in my life. Her response to all the pain I was currently experiencing? She shrugged her shoulders and said to me, “That’s life,”. It was a new response sure but it was no less hurtful. When I tried to discuss my feelings with my mom, to a much less extent, she asked the same question she always does, “what do you have to be depressed about?” A question that might as well be categorized as an ancient African Proverb by now.
The older I get, the less I understand why the black community won’t accept mental illness. With our past history and even current events that are happening exclusively to the black community, we should be actively seeking help for the mental trauma that is raining down on us. We went from slavery to Jim Crow to the corrupt prison system and many of us being killed out on the streets by people who are supposed to protect us. In every decade since we were brought over in the bottom of ships, we have been mistreated, abused and killed. It should almost be expected for most of us to have some sort of mental illness. We should be some of the front leaders in the world on PTSD. However, it seems the complete opposite has happened; the black community has shunned the idea of any of us being mentally ill. Any celebrities or public figures brave enough to come out and talk about their mental struggles are never looked at the same again. They aren’t taken seriously and often become the butt of Facebook jokes and Twitter memes. It’s only in recent years that black people suffering from some kind of mental illness have started to speak up and raise their voices. Only recently have we begun to shed the shame that’s wrongly attached to mental illness and confidently confirm when asked if we have one.
Aside from the jokes and memes, when the community does decide to listen to a select few, it’s only the people who fit a certain type. An individual with an appealing face is more likely to be given a platform to speak about mental illness in than an average or “unattractive” person is. It’s even more likely if they have what society has deemed as an acceptable body. If you fit the physical beauty standard then you can be as mentally ill as you please and you’ll get the help you need. There’s still a catch though; there are really only two mental illnesses that society seems to be willing to discuss. Depression and Anxiety, as if Borderline Personality Disorder, OCD, Anorexia, BiPolar Disorder, Self Harm and Schizophrenia don’t exist. Or rather we know they do but they are deemed the “scary” mental illnesses. The people who have these are “really crazy” and often ignored in favor of those who are more manageable with their simple depression and anxiety. Even though depression and anxiety are in no way the more acceptable, simple or better mental illnesses.
There are so many layers and so many levels of mental illness. Everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s symptoms can and will change over time, and everyone manages their illness differently. We relate to each other by sharing our dark and sad thoughts and we can find comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone in this invisible battle we’re fighting. That’s not enough though. As a community, black people have a long way to go in the acceptance and understanding of mental illness. I’m unsure if we’ll ever get past the point of thinking that illness in the mind is only something white people experience. I’m unsure if we’ll get past the point of shunning the community members who are confident enough to speak up. I don’t know if we’ll ever have enough time to put forth the effort we should in therapists and seeking help. I’m a fairly cynical person, whether it’s from the years of depression or just the way I am, but I don’t see progress being made any time soon. There are so many other things the black community has to rightly focus on and fight against, but I hope that one day we’ll able to see that mental illness deserves just as much attention.