Mental Illness Is Not Just A 'White Person's Disease'

In the black community, mental illness is thought of as a "white person's disease." It is nothing that affects black people. But mental illness is not dependent upon race or gender. Your emotions are valid, and you are valid.
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Mental Illness in the Black Community

I was 23 before I started going to a counselor for my actions and symptoms that were very similar to symptoms of depression. I was depressed most days of the week which caused me not to eat. I lost weight and was awake for more than 12 hours of the day with 4-5 hours of sleep thrown in here and there. My partner at the time also dealt with issues with mental health and rarely focused on me.

I spent a lot of my time trying to make sure he was doing okay, mentally and emotionally. When I wasn't doing that I was studying. I was in the library for 7-10 hours at a time and even once I left the library I would go straight back to my dorm room to study until I had to go to class again or I would head straight to class to learn new information.

This was my life the last year and a half I was in college.

I was always alone. And even when I wasn't alone -- maybe hanging out with friends -- I wasn't mentally there. I always tried to find a way to be alone in my dorm room so that I spent more time studying as I could then have an excuse to tell my friends as to why I didn't show up to have lunch or to hang out. I felt empty and numb most of the time wondering why I even woke up most mornings.

I didn't tell anyone about these feelings -- not my mom or my sister -- and I felt like if I did they would ask me why I felt this way when my life was so good. When I had more opportunities than most young adults my age get, why would or how could I be depressed?

Mental health or mental illness is rarely discussed within the black community. In the black community, mental illness is thought of as a "white person's disease." It is nothing that affects black people. But mental illness is not dependent upon race or gender. Mental health is extremely important for any and everyone, race is not important as anyone may experience or deal with mental health issues. Without mental health, we can not be healthy. Everyone experiences emotional ups and downs, including black people.

"According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population," reported the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The statistic is true, although black people are more likely to deal with psychological distress versus their white counterparts, black people are less likely to seek help when dealing with mental health issues.

The stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community is heavy as black people feel as though choosing to seek professional help, such as a therapist, is a sign of weakness. The topic of mental health is largely absent from discourse in the black community. It is not a topic that is talked about amongst friends or family given the stigma associated with mental illness in the black community. In fact, some family members may even ridicule or make fun of the individual dealing with the mental illness. As a result, individuals in the black community choose to suffer in silence rather than telling anyone what they may be dealing with.

According to Nia Hamm in Ebony, one of the reasons psychologists say black people suffer more from mental illness versus their white counterparts is because of the "psycho-social reason, including socio-economic status, poverty, and crime in African-American communities."

Black people tend to feel as though their suffering is a normal and expected outcome given our history from slavery to present. But also dealing with the fact that in a country that is predominantly white, we are the outsider. As an outsider, we are more prone to discrimination and actions from the majority that may also contribute to mental illness developing at an accelerated rate.

But how do we as black people change the conversation of mental health in the black community?

Well, that's not going to be easy, but the first step is getting the conversation going. I have already seen young black millennials take the lead and start discussing the topic of mental health on a public platform.

At the beginning of May, The Fader published an article on Victor Pope Jr, a comedian, and social media star, where they interviewed him to discuss his YouTube video where he openly talks about living with Bipolar Disorder. You can find the link to the article here.

Also, providing resources to black people in the black community of more affordable options that will help their mental health. Recently, more people are using virtual therapy such as talkspace, where a person is able to text or skype their therapist. This would allow for black people to not have to go into an office or force them to let family members or friends know where they are going, but also make therapy more accessible.

There is still a long way to go before black people become comfortable, open and accepting of the thought of mental illness as well as talking about it in comfortable spaces such as, barbershops and family functions, but I think once black people are more educated on mental illness as well as therapy it will be easier for it to be talked about in the black community.

But just a reminder to everyone if it has never been said to you before: It is okay if you are sad if you get depressed if you get anxious or have anxiety if you just can't seem to find a reason to get out of bed on some mornings because of how you are feeling.

Your emotions are valid, and you are valid.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Awkward Activist.


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.

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