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Black People and the Unspoken World of Mental Health

Black People and the Unspoken World of Mental Health

As someone who struggles with severe anxiety and panic attacks, I often felt ostracized whenever I would tell people that I have a mental illness. The response ranges from “but how? You seem fine” or “you’re Black- you can’t have mental health problems” to “wait so you’re Insane - like crazy people who do crazy things like talking to themselves?” to “but you are always the strong one giving advice and supporting everyone else through their stuff”. The misconception of what a mental health illness is makes it difficult to speak with your family and friends when you need support. The truth is some just do not understand it – especially older Black people. 

With most things in life, there are barriers that exist that affects a person’s decision to not seek mental health assistance when in need. In my community, two of the most impactful ones are Family and the System. They both affect choice and wellbeing.

The Family

For Black Canadians, the struggle with dealing with mental health issues is often a lonely road, which in turn silently affects our abilities to cope with the range of emotions and despair we feel.

With misunderstandings within the community around what mental illness is and is not and the many barriers – systemic and racial – that prevent individuals from accessing help, dealing with mental health disorders such as depression, eating disorders, or PTSD, it becomes challenging and leads to alternate and oftentimes unsafe coping strategies. A Black person experiencing a mental health crisis is more likely to not seek help due to being afraid of how others will perceive them. 

SOME people in the Black community do not believe that mental health is a problem people of colour face and that leaves no room for empathy – you are either cursed or possessed by demons.

In the black community, mental health is a taboo – we do not speak of this! You are shamed if you show any sign of being mentally unwell. Everything is hushed or swept under the rug by family members and those close to you. Two years ago I got this: “What do you mean you feel depressed? Girl please, you are just looking for some sympathy and nobody has time for that”,.

That was a response I got from a close friend when I was experiencing a depressive episode. It made me feel even lower and the negative self-talk became louder. I drew back into my shell because I was disappointed in myself for feeling this way – after all, I AM A STRONG BLACK WOMAN! I am supposed to fix things and smile through the pain and make everything easier for everyone. It’s the burden of the Black woman; we aren’t allowed these moments of self-doubt and “weakness”. Wives hide the mistreatment they receive from their partners; these things almost never get addressed because family problems stay behind closed doors – out of sight.

It is hard to fall apart when the whole world EXPECTS you to stay put-together! It is partially that mindset that keeps us hidden and instead of seeking professional help to deal with issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, and addiction, many people turn to self-medicating or erroneously attempt to “fix” the problem alone often doing more harm than good. This isolates the individual who is struggling and therefore they choose not to access resources.

The System

However, placing the blame solely on the Black Community would do the people a great injustice if we do not highlight the issue of race and discrimination when accessing help. I remember going to my doctor and telling her how I was feeling. She looked at me and said “I don’t understand why you would think you’re going through depression. You just need to sleep it off and get back to life. You don’t look like anything is bothering you”. I left feeling unheard, judged, and that what was happening was just a matter of me thinking too much. It was dehumanizing and a part of me wanted to go up one side of her and down the other – but I would just confirm the “angry Black woman” narrative that most people hold of us.

According to Deidre Franklin-Jackson & Robert T. Carter, “although racism and racial discrimination have been highlighted as important factors in understanding the mental health and physical health status of Blacks, only recently has racism been conceptualized as a possible contributor to mental health disparities in use and access to mental health care.”

It is alarming that as a Black person you won’t always be afforded the same response as your white counterpart when it comes to accessing mental health services. People are beating around the issue and the truth is THIS STILL HAPPENS TODAY! People of colour aren’t always taken seriously when we go to the emergency room seeking help for thoughts of self-harm or severe depression. We aren’t given the resources that can help us simply because we do not fit the Eurocentric idea of who can access these vital sources.

I have tried to educate allies that sometimes they can do more harm than good and I’m often given the rhetoric that all of us are treated the same and what if we are overreacting because we feel sensitive. It has nothing to do with being sensitive but more so of being tired of falling into a mould of “everyone else”. Sadly, that is not our reality and as such we are left oftentimes to suffer in silence and the unending cycle continues when you are constantly battling your own mind. That battle alone is treacherous and couple it with lack of help it is enough to send anyone over the edge. It is scary but somehow – with some last minute deep dive into ourselves – we find an ounce of strength to fight the injustices in our mind and in our system to survive just one more day!

If you need some support don’t hesitate to reach out.  Learn more about anxiety and depression

Trisha Doharty is a Housing Stability Worker and Mental Health Advocate working in the London, Ontario area.