I remember the first time I became aware of my own struggles with mental health. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I isolated myself from my peers and I was extremely irritable and always frustrated with the world and with my life. I was 16 years old when I came to the conclusion that I could no longer handle the life that I was given and I became suicidal. I was consumed and obsessed with the thought of ending my life, and I took the first step when I began to self-mutilate and neglect any health concerns related to my body.
Now, at the age of 25, I take a look back at my fragile 16-year-old self and ask her, "Why didn't you get help?" I see a young girl who was broken, bruised, hopeless and searching for love and belonging. I silenced my hurts and my pains and my thoughts had me enslaved. I carried on in life as if I were completely fine, completely normal; yet, the tally marks engraved on my wrist were evidence that things weren't as good as I portrayed them to be.
I was the student who never gave anyone any problems. I was the child who brought home good grades and I was the quiet, shy, introverted young girl on the block who stayed out of harm's way. I was also the kid who came from Panamanian immigrants who grew up living a poverty-stricken life and lacked resources until they came to America. I came from parents who grew up with the belief that feeding your family was your first priority, so how you "felt" was irrelevant --unless your feelings were going to provide food and shelter. I come from a cultural and ethnic belief that problems are to be dealt with on your own; the idea of seeking therapy was frowned upon and not respected. You don't pay people to handle your problems; you handle them on your own.
So, when I look back at my younger self and I ask her "Why didn't you get help"? I remind myself of how lonely and painful it would have been for me to publicly admit that I was depressed and suicidal. In my mind, I was raised to be a strong, black woman who could handle her own emotions -- not ask someone to help me sort them out. How dare I need treatment for feeling worthless and for being bullied when I come from a lineage of ancestors who used strength and endurance as a way to survive? But maybe our survival tactics are actually causing us more harm than prosperity.
Dear Black Women:
Yes, you are queens. Yes, you are magical. Yes, you are strong and yes, you have a resilient heart that is capable of enduring pain and surpassing any struggle. But I want you to know that above all else, you are human, and mental health is a serious illness that does not discriminate. Despite popular belief, it is not a "white people problem," and our young black boys and young black girls are also susceptible to this growing epidemic consisting of physical and mental dysfunction and maladaptive behaviors. Mental illness has no remorse, and once it enters you, it will try to strip you of your crown and your strength will not be identified with how independent you are or how successful you become.
You will find yourself face-to-face with your weaknesses, and it is within those moments that you will find out what it really means to be strong, to be queen, to be magical. You will no longer be able to Band-Aid your wounds and keep it pushin'. You will find that having faith won't always feel like it's enough to get you through a manic episode. You will have some nights where your tears kiss your pillowcase, and that feeling of sadness is indescribable. You will show how strong you are by allowing yourself to weep. You will show how strong you are by speaking up and admitting to yourself that things are not OK; you are hurting, you are in pain and you are in need of help. You will uncover your wounds and allow the process of healing to begin by no longer keeping your problems a secret, but by giving your problems the proper treatment they need, whether it be therapy or finding a support group.
I want you to know that it is OK to struggle; it is OK for you to not have it all together, it is OK for you to feel weak and it is OK for you to admit to the universe that you can't do life on your own. Black women, your life is deserving of its best chance; please step out of your own way. I don't want you to be one of the African-Americans who die by suicide every 4.5 hours in the U.S. I want you to understand that suicide is the third leading cause of death for young black males ages 15-24; these are the young black talented men that we are raising.
We can no longer turn a blind eye to the subject of mental illness within our community. Studies show that 63 percent of African-Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness. The top-rated barriers to treatment for African-Americans are denial, embarrassment and shame.
I want you to know that you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are worthy, you are loved and your life is worth fighting for. As a black woman who has come face-to-face with my own mental health struggles, I understand that it is not easy, but taking the necessary steps to get to a place of whole-hearted living and healing will be the most rewarding thing you can do for your soul. You are queen, you are magic, but above all else you are human. Take care of yourself.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness please do not hesitate to get help. Visit respectyourstruggle.com to get referrals for your specific mental health needs and for encouragement around your struggles.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.