8 Things I Wish Someone Told Me About Mental Health As A Black Woman
Sometimes, the label of being a “strong black woman” hurts more than it helps.
When I was a 26-year-old newlywed in grad school, I was working full-time at a nonprofit and part-time as a tutor to make ends meet, and in the midst of an account-draining and emotionally taxing custody battle against my then-husband’s ex-wife. At first, I reveled in the challenge of “holding it all together.” But as time passed and my stiff upper lip weakened, it became harder to maintain the poker face I wore for the sake of others. I lost weight and sleep. I cried in the shower every single night. I stuffed my depression away.
Through it all, my husband praised me for being a strong black woman.
When someone says “strong black woman,” a lot of things come to mind. A strong black woman is a woman who can withstand anything with equal measures of grace and attitude. She’s the long-suffering, hardworking pillar of the black community. But as powerful as the label is, it can also become a burden when you’re not feeling particularly strong. It becomes yet another perception to uphold, until the pain you bottle up compounds over time, like a festering wound you keep putting a Band-Aid over. And then, suddenly, you aren’t strong anymore. You’re angry and bitter. You’re unstable and weary.
You don’t have to be perfect all the time, and it’s okay to let others know that you’re struggling with something or need help. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It just means you’re human.
You have to get past the stigma associated with mental health in the black community.
Even though African-Americans are 10% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population, only one-quarter of them seek mental health care, compared to 40% of white people — likely in part because there is an undeniable stigma attached to seeking mental health help in the black community. Some people may tell you to hang in there because we’re a “strong people.” Others still may outright call you weak.
This stigma first reared its close-minded head when I was in college. At the time, being a black nerd was not en vogue at a historically black college and I gave up writing fanfiction, drawing cartoons, reading manga, watching anime, and playing video games to be more like everyone else. The pretending was frightening, lonely. I tried talking to my friends about how I felt and the responses I received ranged from, “Here, take a shot and you’ll feel better” to “It’s just a part of the college experience.” Upon my meek statement that I might need to talk to a professional, they told me, “It won’t do any good. Shrinks are full of shit.”
Because of this pervasive attitude, I found myself trying to explain away debilitating moods and faking a strength I didn’t feel. I drank, I partied, I fit in, but it was at the expense of getting the help that would fix the deeper issue. In hindsight, I should have marched down to the counselor’s office, but I was already enough of a misfit that I didn’t want to risk further exclusion. It takes courage to say screw the stigma, but once you do you’re one step closer to finding peace.
Depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies aren’t “white” maladies.
Bottling things up leads to bad coping mechanisms, so it’s important to get the help you need.
At different points in my life, I’ve used alcohol, drugs, and sex as a way to cloak the pain I constantly stuffed into the deepest pockets of my being. I drank to the point of blacking out every single night of the week. I used drugs to try and feel like “my old self.” I developed romantic and sexual relationships that would allow me to focus on someone else other than the sadness I couldn’t seem to shake. I tried to hide my pain for a very long time.
Until I couldn’t anymore. It all came to a head one winter evening when I called a suicide hotline, already drunk and ready to down a full bottle of sleeping pills to go with it. All my regular lifelines — men, alcohol, partying, grinning and bearing it — were failing. I knew I was crashing. A complete system failure. I downed a 1.5-liter bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on top of the sake I had at dinner. Irrational as it was, I believed calling my parents at 2 a.m. and blindsiding them with my dark thoughts and heartache was somehow worse than killing myself. The two friends I did call messaged me to say they would call back later, and I didn’t want to destroy the fun they were having with something as heavy as this. Even at this point, I was too afraid to take the mask off my depression and stare it in the eyes.
I was more lost and alone than I’ve ever felt in my life, and the woman on the other end of the hotline was the first person I bared all to — all the things I was afraid to tell my parents or friends for fear of judgment or making them uncomfortable. I unpacked the dark places I went to in an effort to “fix” myself, and realized that my “solutions” only exacerbated my depression and anxiety.
To be clear, the call didn’t fix me either. What it gave me was an outlet and an opportunity to take an objective step away from a knee-jerk decision. It was then that I made the decision to find a therapist to unlearn my self-destructive habits and get to the bottom of my depression. I didn’t ever want to get back to a point where I was so far gone that suicide seemed like the only solution.