“Black kids have to figure it out. We don’t have rehabs to go to – you gotta rehab yourself.”
-Percy “Master P” Miller
[Disclaimer: I wrote this in December 2016.]
There’s something familial about the Black experience in America – small gestures, language, and family characteristics often make us feel like despite being strangers, we know each other. “The look” you give another Black person in public while some nonsense is occurring or “the nod” men give in passing, for example. You know what I’m talking about. While it’s true every household is different, and experience determines a significant proportion of our perspectives, many things attributed to Black culture are understood and recognized by most of us. “You feel me?”
The revolution is actually being televised – and tweeted – helping to raise awareness regarding issues in our communities. However, this constant exposure to the unjust slaughter of Black bodies comes with consequences. Race-based trauma is not an issue we can neglect. Social media has allowed strangers to grieve together and support each other. The mask of social media makes people more comfortable. It’s become a safe place for people to reveal what troubles them – for free. So what’s the issue? Why is mental health (MH) stilltaboo in African American communities?
One of the most recognized aspects of Black culture is the role of religion. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity was practiced before the Europeans “taught” our ancestors what it was. If you ask your great (or just grand) mother, you can damn near pray away anything, including issues related to MH. However, millennials are slowly beginning to challenge this myth, despite the backlash and unfortunate reality that circumstances may require one to do just that. Initially, seeking The Bible for guidance, clarity, or hope was the only option we had. Our options have increased immensely, but the idea of thinking someone can treat your problems “better” than God is foreign to us traditionally. Our ancestors developed this dependency on Christianity to rescue them from the cruelty of the world, and did their best to raise us to believe that we should too. To seek an alternative method of treatment for anything troubling was (and still is) disobedient and frowned upon. Ignorance surrounding the existence of psychological disorders and symptoms promotes this attitude. Trying to maintain the stereotype that Black bodies are indestructible promotes this attitude. Avoiding uncomfortable conversations and what people in the community may think of you/your family promotes this attitude.
I cannot address this issue without mentioning that it can vary by gender. For women, it isn’t uncommon to be raised under the impression that there will be no man (or woman) to take care of you. This doesn’t mean your family believes you don’t deserve love, or there are no good (wo)men out there – it’s the reality that you need to be prepared for whatever the universe grants or withholds from you, including a partner. In certain jurisdictions, regulations were put in place by the government that forbid women (not only Black women) on state assistance to have a man living with them. If it was discovered there was a man in the household, funding for the children was cut under the assumption the man was providing support for those children, whether he was their biological/legal guardian or not. The man-in-the-house regulation was ruled contrary to legislative goals of the Aid to Families of Dependent Children program in 1968. Unwilling to risk being homeless or not having enough financial support to take care of their families, Black women were forced to be cautious of their romantic relationships. It became instinctive to take care of things alone because there was no choice. This responsibility, this demand to be everyone’s savior (the Sisterella Complex), left little room for addressing MH related issues. Black women couldn’t afford (literally or figuratively) to be depressed, emotionally exhausted, or mentally drained. It’s the sacrifice many Black women make today, because our communities depend on us. It’s fascinating and equally heartbreaking to observe how frequently Black women unconsciously place the burdens of others on their shoulders. It’s like we’re wired to consider what we need last.
Men suffer similar adversities. It’s their responsibility to provide strength, love, money, emotional support and everything else the women in their lives request. Hyper masculinity seems to be more prevalent among Black men in comparison to other races. “No homo” after complimenting each other and even refusing to use certain lenses on Snapchat is often due to the belief it’ll tarnish their manhood. “Boys don’t cry” is another barrier to believing that men are allowed to be emotional, vulnerable beings. For decades, Black men were forced to witness their wives and daughters be sexually exploited and there was nothing they could do about it without risking their own lives. It was (and still is) known that Black men are stripped of their masculinity in order for white supremacy to exist. To compensate for the loss of manhood over decades, Black men naturally felt they had something to prove. They raised sons who they taught not to whine, cry, or express themselves, unintentionally stripping away their right to be human. Many men once believed it was possible to “beat the gay” out of their sons. Fourteen years of my life were spent surrounded by White males who normalized homosexual-like jokes in casual conversation, jokes I knew would never fly in a circle of Black males because they “ain’t with that gay shit.” The definition of masculinity is so fragile among Black men words like “sus” had to be created. The belief that MH issues are a sign of weakness prevents Black men from confronting them.
Lastly, I’ll address education and similar environmental factors. In many Black families MH isn’t discussed because few know anything about it. How can you offer to help when you don’t recognize it’s needed? Disorders like depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD are overlooked because not only are most families unaware of the symptoms, but they are unwilling to accept that these issues affect us. It is common for relatives to associate psychological distress with White people – yet according to the US HHS Office of Minority Health, Black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than their White peers. In addition, MH providers are usually middle-aged White women. Women who we would never expect to begin to understand our lifestyles. Regardless of upbringing, there’s typically a language barrier – how and why should I expect you to help me if you don’t even understand the content of our discussions? While MH is striving to combat this issue and minimize this gap, it’s much easier said than done. Trying too hard to be “culturally sensitive” comes with limitations that can make the therapeutic journey more difficult than it should be, often leading to misdiagnosis. Therapy also comes with a price, and many insurance companies refuse to pay for services not affiliated with a diagnosis. This places a heavy burden on professionals – they can either provide services pro bono or slap a diagnosis on your health records that’ll follow you for the rest of your life and possibly lose their credentials due to ethical violations. Most recently we’ve discovered not only is it life threatening to sell CDs, wear hoodies, ask for help after a car accident, or forget to use a turning signal, but calling police during a crisis could lead to death as well (Alfred Olango). Most people aren’t trained to sustain a crisis, so calling 911 has always been advised. It should also be noted that violent behavior during a psychological crisis is not present in majority of cases. Unfamiliar with the antecedents of psychological crises, Black people ultimately find themselves at a crossroads when MH issues hit the fan and rapport with law enforcement is absent.
As the MH field continues to grow, the stigma surrounding psychological disorders and discomfort is slowly lifting. One conversation at a time, the dialogue is changing. “I aint crazy!” is turning into “I think I need to see someone.” Millennials have made it clear we’re not willing to continue the cycle, and we’re refusing to allow our families to fall victim to the misconceptions surrounding psychological well-being. Unification via hashtags like #YouGoodMan and #MyDepressionLooksLike are just the beginning of a societal revolution. It’s okay to not be okay. Black minds matter too.
Peace, Love & Lil Wayne.