Can we have a real conversation about mental health — Black mental health? I will first state that I am not a mental health professional and rely on their expertise to support my personal and professional journeys. May is Mental Health Awareness month, a month that I wasn’t even aware existed until a few years ago — I’ll come back to that later. This year, recognizing the month is very salient to me for many reasons. To start, as a college administrator and professor I see firsthand the stress and anxiety that heavily impacts our college students. This month in particular, they are balancing all of their end-of-the-semester requirements with all of the other things in their lives — like jobs, family care, etc. Prior to COVID-19 and certainly exasperated by it, we’ve seen a steady increase in the need for mental health services as students struggle with mental wellness. For many, they can’t articulate what exactly they are feeling — tired, no motivation, sad, angry, stressed or constantly anxious. The outcomes are real though — lower grades, attendance issues, illnesses, dropping out and most terribly suicide.
Mental health issues are not just affecting our college age students; I especially feel for our elementary and secondary age children as well. They often have little agency over their lives and may find it even harder to articulate what they are feeling and experiencing without being told they are exaggerating or don’t have anything to be stressed out about. Add in the ways in which some educators engage with our children that dismisses or criminalizes their behaviors that might be signs of being mentally unwell. When I think about this further with respect to our Black community, I know that the impact is far greater when you consider race-based traumas and experiences. All of this had me ponder what I learned about mental illness and mental health growing up.
I don’t ever recall hearing family members talking about mental illness or mental health, not directly at least. I remember statements like that person is troubled, off or even possessed. Much of what I understood about someone who may have been diagnosed or assumed to have a mental illness was similar to the movie “Soul Food.” If you remember, Crazy Uncle Pete who stayed in his bedroom and people just talked about him and rarely interacted with him out of fear of his unknown mental state. That’s what I believe happens in a lot of Black families — we avoid the conversation, the issue, even the person. Rather than addressing or embracing them and the conversation about mental health, we instead rely primarily on prayer to heal and deliver. While I certainly believe in the power of prayer, I also believe in the purpose of proper diagnosis and treatment.
We (Black folks) have to address the stigma we’ve attached to mental illness as a community so that we can eliminate it as a barrier to better mental health management. Not doing so is suffocating our existence as so many of us and our children suffer in silence, too afraid of being ridiculed, being labeled crazy or something being “wrong” with us. Our limited and outdated perspectives of mental health have clouded our ability to see the warning signs and the cries for help in ourselves and our children. I’ve had to be very reflective over the last several years and I too know that I overlooked symptoms, minimized calls for help, dismissed what I thought was just attitude, mostly because I didn’t have the knowledge or tools to understand how significant mental health is. I implore you to wake up and not make those mistakes. Here’s are some things that may help:
Increase your understanding of mental health and particularly seek guidance on Black mental health and wellness.
Work to address and undo the biases you may hold about mental illness. When you know more, spread that knowledge within your sphere of influence. We must reshape the narrative on Black mental health so that we can be well together.
Be honest with yourself about the things you have experienced and how they impact your current behavior and well-being. Seek help. We have a great directory of Black mental health care providers (psychologytoday.com) that can be a great starting point for assistance and direction.
If you have young people in your lives, resist the urge to pressure or punish them into ideas of excellence or success that can be limiting.
Encourage them to pause and breathe. Allow them to safely share without the fear of judgment or retaliation. Affirm their emotions and ask how you can help. Celebrate their victories, no matter how small. Help take care of their minds and hearts as you would your own.
Again, May is Mental Health Awareness month — perhaps like me at one point, you didn’t know. Now you do and I hope that you take a moment to reflect on what you can do to help us build a stronger Black community — mind, body and soul. Be well!
Dr. Khalilah A. Shabazz shares wisdom, lessons and insights on personal, social and societal issues of today. Contact her at email@example.com.