Growing up, I had always been a nervous child. At a young age, I grew used to that pounding sensation in my chest, that irrational uncertainty of future situations that sometimes rendered me motionless. At that time, I was unaware of what was happening to my body, but now I have come to learn and accept that I was experiencing anxiety attacks.
Even at such a young age, certain situations in my life and upbringing molded my mental state. Growing up black, and being a part of a culture where things like mental illnesses and disorders were looked down upon, I did not truly feel validated nor heard until I was an adult. It wasn’t until college, when I was able to find a therapist, that I realized I had been suffering from anxiety attacks and later, depression.
From childhood to adulthood, I was always told to “get over it” or “toughen up” by those around me, or told that I was overreacting. My anxiety, which eventually led to me experiencing other types of mental illnesses and disorders, was constantly brushed off or minimized.
I was, in a way, shamed into silence and into guilt. With no resources and the lack of understanding from others, I grew up thinking something was wrong with me.
As the years went on, I unfortunately discovered that this was not a unique experience to me. Many black people—black women specifically—share similar stories.
Narratives of mental health struggles surrounding black girls and women are few. Prevailing mentalities both inside and outside of the black community make it difficult for black women to express possible mental health issues and shame black women if they do speak out.
For centuries, black women have always been seen as “stronger” within our community, caring for others and putting the wellbeing of others before themselves. This type of mindset starts from childhood and carries on into adulthood.
With the “strong black woman” archetype looming over the head of the community, the perception of black women is warped, leaving little to no room to discuss or even contemplate that not all black women are strong or resilient. Coupled with mental illness within the black community being shamed and stigmatized, there are rarely outlets for black people to feel safe voicing our struggles.
The negative stigma within the black community doesn’t stop at home. Growing up with attention deficit disorder (ADD), I learned very quickly that my neurological disorder meant I was deemed “lazy” or “unintelligent” whereas non-black children would be looked at with sympathy and provided with better resources to aid them in their educational futures.
I and other black children with ADD suffered similar outcomes of being branded as “class clowns” or being told we were disruptive without any sort of help, understanding or genuine possibility that the class structure and curriculum did not accommodate for black children who had ADD or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
What was seen as a neurological disorder among non-black children was seen as a behavioral issue when it came to black children. But on the other side of the coin, when the possibility of black children having ADD or ADHD was presented to parents, because of stigma toward mental health within our communities, there were shame led to barriers that prevented black children from being diagnosed or accommodated within their own homes.
It was a never-ending cycle. Until I was in my early twenties, I was shamed for my depression, my anxiety, and my ADD. Now I am just learning to live with my mental health, as are many black people.
With all that said, there are changes I have seen personally and more than anything, ways to help our community both from within and outside.
My first leap toward healing was understanding that things were not okay, mentally, but that this was nothing to be ashamed of. From my childhood until adulthood I was shamed indirectly by those in my community and finally admitting this to myself and finding the strength to seek help turned my life around immensely.
The first step is speaking out and understanding that there is nothing to be ashamed of. This of course, comes with the education and reformation of mental health resources within the black community. It means understanding that mental illnesses should not be stigmatized and that it is more important to embrace someone who may be going through difficult times rather than ostracize them.
Education is key, and this is something to be worked on both in and outside of the community. The ways that the black community are impacted regarding mental health should be taught in the classroom, in churches and at home. Understanding how common things like anxiety depression and ADD are, can be essential to unpacking negative perceptions.
Teachers who are non-black should not only educate themselves in mental health fields but also realize their own personal biases that come with ostracizing black children who exhibit ADD or ADHD in class. It’s important that many non-black educators question themselves regarding their mistreatment of black kids with ADD and ADHD, while accommodating to non-black children who show the same systems.
Access to resources is important to this change as well. Resources bring awareness to the community in various forms, whether it be through teaching, electronic websites, or even a qualified professional (i.e. black psychologist, mental health educators, or someone who has experience living with mental or neurological disorders) speaking to families, schools, and churches to help push for education.
Employing black psychologists, and having black psychologists reach out to black people, making their services affordable and available, is also essential. My therapist was a black woman who looked like me, and that brought me more ease than I ever thought it would and eventually made my therapy experience comfortable.
The most important factor in all of this is to listen to black people, watch for signs the same would you would for nonblack people. This goes not just non-black people, but black people as well, because discrimination often starts within our own community.
In the future, I hope to see more black people, especially black women, no longer shamed or guilt-tripped into keeping their struggles with mental health secret. As we move to away from the archetype of the strong black woman, I do believe change is coming, but there must be understanding from all sides.