July is Minority Mental Health Month, a month to spread awareness about how mental illnesses specifically affects people of color, and to erase the stigma and misinformation that plagues POC when it comes to mental illness. One way to spread awareness is through dialogue. I had a candid conversation with three black women writers (Ashley Reese, Minaa B, and Angelica Bastien) who deal with mental illness about how our mental health ― including depression, ADHD and suicidal thoughts ― affects our lives and our work.
Zeba Blay: I’ve been thinking a lot about identity. About how our identities shape the way we navigate the world, and how the world navigates us. When I think about myself, I think, “I’m black (first), I’m a woman, I’m a writer, and I’m mentally ill.”
I get to write about all these intersections of my identity in ways that really help me process my illness. But lately, in the wake of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and everything going on, writing has been hard. I’ve slipped into bouts of debilitating depression, and it’s all triggered by racism.
“I’m experiencing a kind of “racism beat” fatigue, where I feel I have nothing more to say about the constant deaths, the constant injustices.”
I’m experiencing a kind of “racism beat” fatigue, where I feel I have nothing more to say about the constant deaths, the constant injustices. I feel conflicted, because as someone who writes about culture I know it’s my job to tackle these issues. But I’m finding that my blackness and my mental health is getting in the way. I’m taking it all in on an incredibly personal level, and beyond the general fatigue is this deep melancholy ― I know my depression is getting worse. Does this make sense?
Have any of you experienced this kind of intensifying of your mental illness when it comes to writing about race or even thinking about race in America? How do you deal?
Minaa B: Often, I do find myself in a position where I am feeling this sense of burn out when it comes to discussing not just race or racism, but social injustices period. I often feel like life has no value ― especially black lives.
The overall idea of a human life being deemed insignificant because I “look” different or my beliefs are different is disgusting to me but also frightening. As a mental health writer and social worker, I am always trying to stir conversations around mental wellness in the AA community because we experience high amounts of trauma in and out of our own lives. It’s a tiring task. And the role of being an advocate and educator can also take its toll on my mental wellness.
I find myself confused a lot about how to approach my writing. How do I talk about healing in a world that’s hurting? How do I talk about mental wellness when violence is potent and my people consistently have to be prepared for what feels like war, rather than just living life? How can I push for mental awareness and advocate for change when constant societal injustices are taking place and are only adding to the mental health crisis?
AB: I use pop culture to discuss these issues and how they affect my life. I’m not sure I could mentally handle writing about race, politics, and gender directly. Using film, television, and comics as a lens provides a bit of a buffer. But lately I have been fatigued by being so open about my struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety. Which I used to discuss more openly on social media.
Sometimes I forget that the editors or people who don’t know me personally may take things the wrong way. I recently met with a writer/editor I’ve only known online when he came through Chicago and he said something that really got under my skin. I’m paraphrasing but it was something like, “You’re not as sad as I expected.” How is someone supposed to take that?
“'You’re not as sad as I expected.' How is someone supposed to take that?”
Writing about my illness used to be not only a form of therapy, but a matter of survival ― especially last year. My “Feminine Grotesque” column came out of this need. Now it only exacerbates my anxiety. I think while writing and openly discussing mental illness online can be healthy for me, it became sort of a crutch to not create a support system in real life. I definitely began to isolate myself. Even though it felt like a necessity especially as I would get other black women who deal with the same things reaching out to me and thanking me for being so open.
I’m curious, have any of you dealt with this sort of dynamic? Is there a way to write about these issues and still take care of ourselves?
MB: Angelica, I am completely with you. When I began to write, I decided to open up about my past struggles with depression, my suicide attempts, addiction to cutting (self-harm) and extreme anxiety. The responses were warming and my articles were well received. I continued to explore these avenues because I realized there aren’t that many folks that look like me in the psychotherapy field and in the writing field. But as I did, that’s when the fatigue came full force. How do I learn how to balance the hurt and the healing?
“I felt like people were intrigued by my disease and were less intrigued by the healing factor.”
I felt like people were intrigued by my disease and were less intrigued by the healing factor. I’ve learned to allow myself the space I need to grieve. If the writing hurts, I talk about how the writing hurts. And if the words are too painful to bear – I stop.
Ashley Reese: This all kind of reminds of a tweet I saw the other day. To paraphrase, it said, “White editors, please be cognizant of the way you peddle your token black freelancers to write about this latest batch of police brutality.” Of course, our perspectives are necessary, but it can feel like a burden. We’re grief mules. “Yes, here I am, reporting for duty! Ready to write a few hundred words about black death and dehumanization with a few embedded Tweets thrown in here and there for a paycheck.”
““Yes, here I am, reporting for duty! Ready to write a few hundred words about black death and dehumanization with a few embedded Tweets thrown in here and there for a paycheck.””
It’s important work, but sometimes I’m sitting there wondering if the amount I’m making for this piece or that piece is worth the emotional exhaustion.
My most steady writing gig at the moment has a largely teen and young adult audience, so obviously I want them to know about what’s going on. I want them to know about how race affects policing, police brutality, etc. I want them to be better people in the future. Sometimes I have moments when I think, “I’m literally pleading for people to recognize my humanity, and the humanity of people who look like me, and I’m just hoping something sticks.” To put all of that work in and know that there are people who are still going to discredit me, and basically gaslight the hell out of me, drives me up the wall.
Writing about race is for the greater good, but it’s hard to be gentle on ourselves in the process. When is the greater good just not worth the emotional labor? We become complete masochists! Writing about race hurts and heals. It’s a little cruel, honestly.
ZB: Angelica, I’d love to return to what you were saying about using social media in addition to your writing as a kind of outlet. I have such a tricky relationship with social media, specifically Twitter.
Growing up, the Internet was a kind of haven for me, a place for me to be myself or at least a version of myself that felt the most comfortable. I could be depressed and neurotic online and and it was OK, I could find community that way. But now, I use social media mostly in a professional sense. It feels necessary to have Twitter, and Instagram, etc. as a writer. It’s a way to connect with editors, to share my work, to discover new ideas. But it’s also a place where I experience so much trolling, where I feel a constant anxiety to be “on” and to produce. And I’m hyper-concerned about the way my mental illness manifests itself online. I’ll sometimes make cryptic tweets about my mood, because I need an outlet, but I’m also aware that my colleagues and peers are reading these things and there’s this feeling of... Does everyone think I’m crazy? Am I the crazy black bitch?
“There’s this feeling of... Does everyone think I’m crazy? Am I the crazy black bitch?'”
Community really is so important, and even though I know the narrative of the “strong, independent black woman” is a lie that we’ve been sold, I still find myself so unable to even attempt to build that community. I isolate myself because I feel as though my illness is a burden and, yeah, on some level, isn’t black.
I tell myself that if I’m going through it, especially on social media or in the workplace, I’m being weak, or worse ― “unprofessional.” Especially in navigating white spaces as a black woman, at least for me, I need to feel like I have it together, because not appearing to have it together is kind of a matter of survival. Does that make sense? Do any of you fall into the trap of that narrative?
AR: Absolutely. I’ve been all about opening my big mouth on online platforms since proto-social media sites like Livejournal were poppin. But now I’m not a 16-year-old complaining about people at school or, I don’t know, writing about Harry Potter theories. I use social media for fun and professional gain, and I’ve curated my online persona in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived. I’ve been scouted for a job opportunity recently by a white media company, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ll come across as too black and brash for them. I mean, I think that some of these corporations are starting to realize that having outspoken black online figures writing for them brings numbers and an audience. Hell, Teen Vogue hired a black woman to be the EIC, and they’re producing content about nail polish and Deray getting arrested. And that’s brilliant.
But I know these companies still want to be “careful.” Black enough so that they can tout diversity, but not too black in a way that’ll make them feel uncomfortable or seriously question their whiteness.
“I know these companies still want to be “careful.” Black enough so that they can tout diversity, but not too black in a way that’ll make them feel uncomfortable or seriously question their whiteness.”
I still let my moody side fly every now and then, and usually it’s about my anxiety or ADHD. As much as I love the friendships that social media has given me over the years, as I start to make more professional connections through it, I can’t help but compare myself to my peers. So-and-so wrote this amazing piece, so-and-so did that. It’s inspiring, but it can also make me wallow in a pool of failure. I can’t help but think about what I could potentially write, create, and produce if I didn’t have attention issues, if I could manage my time, if I could hit a deadline without issue. But I’m so apprehensive about talking about those problems on a public forum, especially when potential employers could be watching. Who wants to hire a writer who admits to having problems with everything that’s crucial to having a successful writing career?
AB: We all have to calibrate ourselves for social media and I am definitely slightly different on various platforms. But recently I realized I couldn’t rely on social media for friendship and as an outlet since I began experiencing blowback professionally and personally. I honestly don’t feel safe anymore using social media to discuss my mental illness or even to be vaguely moody.
“I honestly don’t feel safe anymore using social media to discuss my mental illness or even to be vaguely moody.”
Twitter has been invaluable in terms of connecting to editors and getting work. So, I have become a bit paranoid when it comes to being open and tweeting cryptic messages.
Like Zeba, I often wonder when I have been open in the past, Do people think I’m crazy? Do people see me beyond my mental illness? Are my friends in real life alarmed when they come across my online persona?
Even though I know the narrative of the “strong, independent black woman” is an impossible fantasy, there is a part of me that struggles asking for help and is afraid of seeming too needy when it comes to my illness. This is why social media especially Twitter and Tumblr felt so necessary for me to vent in the past. But as my profile has risen and I’ve become full-time freelance, I realize how important the ways I present myself online are to my livelihood. While being open on social media opens us to creating a great sense of community, it also leaves us vulnerable to harsh criticism and misunderstanding from people who have never had to wrestle with mental illness.
I’m curious, how does everyone practice self-care? What are your outlets beyond social media? Do you think no longer using social media in such a personal way is actually a bad thing?
MB: In regards to self-care, I would honestly say that due to me using social media mainly to build a brand, it is a bit easy for me to practice self-care (in relation to the social media world). I really have no interest in scrolling to see what others are doing. I love to be engaged with like-minded people but I make sure that I don’t over indulge.
AR: For all of my critiques and anxiety of social media, the potential phoniness, it’s ultimately helped me wrestle through some serious identity issues and mental health woes. Befriending other black women through these platforms made me feel less alone.
I slowly chronicled my realization that I have ADHD via blogging. I’ve shared my struggle with trichotillomania (impulsive hair pulling) online, and I was contacted by a teen sufferer of the same disorder who saw an article I wrote about. My column, Accidental Virgin, led to so many fulfilling conversations about sex and relationship anxiety.
Should I ― we, really ― be worried about the ease at which we “expose” ourselves online? It’s can feel so second-nature and it feels more like an asset for me than a drawback for me personally. But does this vulnerability lead to more positives than negatives? Do the people we meet on these platforms who help brighten our days or even mold our careers matter more than the trolls who make us feel unsafe?
This also makes me think about how we, as black women, take up space. What does it mean to take up space in a virtual sphere? What’s revolutionary? What’s doing more harm than good?
ZB: Ashley, I feel this uneasiness around “exposure.” But I do think, ultimately, exposing my mental illness, talking about it, having open dialogue about it like we’re having right now, is important. Even with all the messiness that entails, the anxiety and the fear of judgement, talking about and writing about my reality has been helpful. And I do think it’s important for someone like me to be unapologetic about my melancholy, I do believe in a way that I’m helping someone, somehow.
That said, exposing myself, my neuroses, my trauma, can be exhausting. I remember thinking, when I was younger, that if I had certain things ― a job, a partner, a decent place to live ― that my self loathing and my sadness would magically disappear.
“I remember thinking, when I was younger, that if I had certain things ― a job, a partner, a decent place to live ― that my self loathing and my sadness would magically disappear.”
Now, I have a lot of those things and I’ve realized that happiness isn’t conditional, it doesn’t depend on the external. It’s kind of a horrifying realization for me.
Recently, someone on Facebook posted a video where a man was talking about how people who “claim” to be depressed shouldn’t let their depression define them. Instead, he said, we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and understand that our mental health is all about choosing the right, positive thoughts. That frustrates me, because that’s something that I try to do every day, and it helps, but it isn’t as simple as that. I’ve had to accept, am learning to accept, the idea that my illness is just that ― an illness that I am going to have to deal with for the rest of my life, if I don’t succumb to suicide.
I have my good days and my bad days, but ultimately I’m probably always going to feel suicidal, feel hopeless, feel tired of being alive. I have to work extra hard to “function.” That’s my life.
There’s a lot of joy in my life, a lot of great people and great things, but depression and anxiety is a part of it and I want to get to a place where I’m well, yes, but where I also don’t beat myself up for being unable to “think good thoughts.” Where are you all with this, with “accepting” your illness for what it is?
MB: My depression is very on and off. Currently I am on medication for managing my depression and it was a necessary decision for my survival. To say that I expect to be on meds the rest of my life ― no I don’t. I also don’t really feel like this is going to be a “forever” thing for me honestly. Maybe I am just being hopeful. But I haven’t fully accepted that I am always going to have this struggle. Right now the meds are helping me function at a higher capacity, and I am praying that when I choose to wean off the meds I will have the right skills in my self-care toolbox to help me through my rough patches. But I am also aware that if I need to put myself back through therapy, and on meds, then I will always do what is necessary for my wellbeing.
So though I have fully accepted what my struggles are, I have not accepted it as a lifelong condition. However, I am very much aware that I will spend the rest of my life prone to depression. But is there a difference? Is this denial? What do the rest of you think as Zeba mentioned about “accepting” your illness?
AB: My first time in the mental hospital I was 13 years old so I have been dealing with bipolar disorder (although my diagnosis changed for a bit) for a long time. I’m in my late 20s now and I am definitely at a point where I accept my illness as a part of who I am. Although I do still slip into beating myself up for not being positive enough, for mistakes I’ve made, for when my depression consumes me. It’s not perfect and I have a lot of work to do, but I am doing much better than I was doing even just a year before. It’s a day-to-day struggle to keep the balance and treat myself with kindness.
This roundtable has been really interesting since it has led me to reconsider my stance on not talking and writing much about living with mental illness as a black woman online anymore.
Maybe taking up space and providing an example of what it means to survive with this holds enough value to outweigh the risks. Maybe being vulnerable and open in our writing gives us a chance to transcend the (at times self-imposed) isolation that my mind tricks us into doing.
“Maybe being vulnerable and open in our writing gives us a chance to transcend the (at times self-imposed) isolation that my mind tricks us into doing.”
AR: I accepted my anxiety ages ago. I first went to therapy as an 8-year-old. I became so freaked out after the episode of “Fresh Prince” where Uncle Phil had heart attack, that I was afraid to eat for an entire summer and some change. I laugh about it now, but I only recently realized that I was initially triggered by my uncle being in the hospital just a few months prior. I’ve been a morbid, anxious mess ever since. Ha! My trich has also been a normal part of my life since around that same time. But I have moments where I have a hard time accepting my ADHD. The fact that people still discredit it as a disorder in the first place doesn’t help. I fall into this thought process of, like, maybe if I just kept a planner, or if I just got more sleep, or if I just started my work earlier, that I could shake off a majority of my symptoms.
It’s pretty telling that I’m more comfortable turning my disorder into a personality flaw instead of an actual glitch with the way my brain processes things; that’s how I know I’m not all the way there with “accepting” my diagnoses. As a black woman, having ADHD puts me at risk career wise. Studies have shown that black employees are subject to higher scrutiny than white ones, and their mistakes receive more dire consequences in the workplace than white employees, too.
“As a black woman, having ADHD puts me at risk career wise.”
And yet, like I touched on earlier, telling an employer that I have ADHD isn’t exactly encouraged because it’ll make me look like I have poor employee qualifications in the first place. It’s like I can’t afford to make too many mistakes, and that scares me. So, have I accepted that I have ADHD, a condition made worse by my anxiety, a condition that is treated with medication that triggers my trich? Yeah, and it’s been a rough ride.
But to swing this back around to writing, I honestly don’t know if I would have put the pieces together if I didn’t first discuss my concerns about it via social media/writing. Like Angelica said, being vulnerable about this kind of stuff can be an important part of self-care, and it can also help others in the same boat. I don’t want to downplay the psychological toll that online negativity plays, but at the end of the day I’m thinking about who my writing helps.
I’m thinking about who reached out to me to tell me that my writing meant something to them. I’m thinking about the people who let themselves be vulnerable for my consumption, and how their writing inspired me, helped me, made me want to be a better person. That’s what keeps me going. Maybe that’s what’s keeping all four of us going, in the end.
This interview has been edited and condensed.