'Get Out' Gets In Our Heads About African Americans And Mental Health

Originally published on CocoaFly.com


“When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it.”

--Carter G. Woodson The Mis-Education of the Negro

Get out for your safety. Get out of this neighborhood. Get out of Black minds. There’s so much symbolism to unpack in Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. The psychological thriller is about how a black man’s visit to the estate of his white girlfriend’s parents turns into a trip from hell. Mental health and African-American trauma is one of the film’s major themes.

Chris Washington rides to upstate New York with his girlfriend Rose Armitage to meet her parents in a secluded, rural area. Rose’s mother Missy is a psychiatrist and her father Dean is a neurosurgeon.

I watched the film with a majority Black audience in Oakland. During the scene where Missy offers to hypnotize Chris in the middle of the night to “help” him kick his smoking habit, the audience yelled, “Noooo!” The hypnosis is actually the Armitages’ trick into trapping Black victims for enslavement. I’m a mental health advocate and live with depression. That scene and the audience’s reaction reminded me of our history with medical racism and why some African Americans distrust the mental health system.

In 1851, a physician published a report claiming that runaway slaves who sought freedom were mentally ill and called their “sickness” drapetomania. Today, the National Association of Mental Illness reports that African Americans are misdiagnosed more than white patients and over diagnosed for schizophrenia. This results in Black patients not receiving the correct treatment for what’s really ailing them.

Investigative stories from a few years ago revealed that providers are giving children in foster care psychotropics at disturbingly high rates. Black children account for 26 percent of kids in foster care, according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Our prisons are filled with many who should be in psychiatric care, not behind bars. And there’s a serious need for diverse health providers. The American Psychological Association reported in 2013 that 84 percent of psychologists are white, while 5 percent are Black. Having culturally competent providers who understand our challenges is important.

I can personally attest that receiving quality mental health care and community support, understanding mental health and having a therapist who understands my culture makes a difference. We need the help because studies have shown racism causes stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD and other health issues.

For Missy to prey on Chris’ trauma from losing his mother and use that pain to enter his mind, demonstrates the psychological oppression of racism. She sends Chris to the “sunken place,” a dark space where he sees Missy seeing him. It’s a reference to many things, including W.E.B Du Bois theory of “double consciousness” where we see ourselves through the eyes of the dominant culture. Double Consciousness is an internal struggle that affects the Black psyche. We carry this in our minds constantly. Which makes sense why the horror in the film is the Armitage’s surgically transferring parts of white brains into Black skulls.

The audience sees the internal struggle of double consciousness with all of the Black characters held captive. A few times Georgina, the house servant, is looking at her reflection. She sees herself through the gaze of Grandma Armitage, the white matriarch whose mind she carries. During the powerful scene where Chris tells her sometimes he’s afraid of white people, Georgina tears up. Then she contradicts herself and says, “No, no, no, no.” The real Georgina is trying to emerge, but Grandma mentally wrestles Georgina back into her place.

The “sunken place,” is where we’re weighted down by lies we’ve internalized about our history and image and racial trauma. Educator and researcher Dr. Joy DeGruy is the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). On her website, PTSS is defined as “a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.”

Like Chris, this “sunken place” paralyzes us by impacting both our mental health and physical health. But Chris escapes once he blocked out the hypnosis trigger of the silver spoon and teacup. His physical freedom was dependent on his mental freedom. Other victims became “woke” when they “saw the light” from Chris’ camera. Light therapy is a treatment for depression.

The comic relief in the film reflects how Black folks use comedy to cope. You know that saying, “I gotta laugh to keep from crying.” Sometimes the messages in the film were so deep and real to me, I almost cried. The suicide of Walter the groundskeeper reminded me of captured Africans who jumped off slave ships because the middle passage voyage was so inhumane. And more recently, the suicides of Kalief Browder and Black Lives Matter activist Marshawn McCarrel came to mind. Walter possessed Grandpa Armitage’s brain. He knew he could not be free with the mental shackles. It was no surprise he shot himself specifically in the head. As for Chris, he made it out alive but probably with even more post trauma issues. How will his friend Rod support him in the aftermath? How do we as a community support each other mentally and emotionally in a racist society?

Jordan Peele brilliantly addressed so many issues in Get Out without overwhelming the audience. It’s a disturbing reminder that Black people carry these issues every day, all day and all at once.

There’s an African proverb that says, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Jordan Peele calls out the hunter, validates our pain, and let’s his Black audience know that our racial oppression is not a figment of our imaginations. We are not crazy. We are traumatized, constantly.

Jenee Darden is a journalist, public speaker and mental health advocate. She speaks about race, gender, her personal experience during the O.J. Simpson Trial and mental health.

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