By Karina Sloan
Black people have been fighting for equality for decades, and justice is long overdue. As Black people, we endure racism in nearly every aspect of our lives, from education, jobs, and housing, to the criminal justice system and healthcare. Racism is deeply ingrained in every facet of our lives. While the Black Lives Matter Movement is still in full swing, there is one aspect of this movement we have continued to overlook–our mental health. Racism also plays such a pivotal role in shaping the complexities of Black mental health. It explains why our mental health differs from white people and other non-Black POC but also why we culturally reject having discussions around the topic.
There is a wide stigma surrounding mental health and how it’s addressed in the Black community. Black celebrities such as Jennifer Lewis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kendrick Sampson, and Michelle Obama have been outspoken in efforts to normalize the conversation by expressing their own struggles with mental health in general, especially during this time of social unrest. And while more conversations are being had, there is still a reluctance to invest in and receive mental health care. But now, more than ever, it is important to prioritize ourselves and put our needs first.
While the pandemic brought on by COVID-19 isn’t the sole reason many people struggle with mental health, it has played a unique role in pushing the conversation about why we need it. Black people are beginning to confront emotions, traumatic experiences, and daily struggles that they may have otherwise pushed aside. And seeking mental health care has become increasingly more accepted. The effects of COVID-19 can be seen as both positive and negative, but it sheds light on the many Black people who have been struggling in silence for years.
All Black people have experienced or witnessed racist insults, microaggressions, hate crimes, or even physical violence. Due to discrimination, many marginalized groups face higher levels of stress. Racism is a known cause of increased levels of depression and anxiety. These experiences often lead to PTSD and generally increased levels of emotional distress. Racism can also lead to internalized racism and self-hate, causing individuals to subconsciously or consciously have negative beliefs about their blackness and their worth. As we delve deeper into black mental health, racism also explains why we are so reluctant to seek mental health care and why we ignore our own mental health needs.
White America has imposed unrealistic stereotypes onto Black people by putting us in a box and forcing us to be cautious of how we feel and act in many settings.As Black men and women, we are acutely aware of America’s labels of the “angry Black woman” or the “aggressive Black man,” just two of the many stereotypes we continuously deal with. Consciously and unconsciously, we have built an armor to protect ourselves from the pain of these stereotypes.
EBONY spoke with Dr. Carolynne Garrison Howard, a Clinical Psychologist in the Cleft and Craniofacial Center at Barrow Neurological Institute,about how these racist experiences create underlying feelings of disconnection and being misunderstood. “Many Black people experience cultural depression, this underlying feeling of being depressed or feeling disconnected that comes from experiencing racial inequality. Oftentimes, they are highly sensitized about how they will be judged and perceived by other people, putting up a guard for themselves or preparing for the possibility of being misunderstood or mistreated.”
In Black spaces as well as White spaces, we have built ourselves up as strong and invincible people, unable to be broken. In our efforts to navigate racism, we ignore how heavily it impacts us. We bought into a stereotype that felt powerful, only to recognize the harmful effects it has created for our mental health. We have continuously neglected our pain and normalized ignoring our feelings in the midst of learning how to deal with racism and discrimination. And while reluctance is prevalent in most of the Black community, being mindful of intersectionalities such as gender or sexuality, also complicates how individuals acknowledge their feelings.
Dr. Erlanger Turner, a Licensed Psychologist and an Assistant Professor at Pepperdine University, spoke with us about how intersectionality plays an important role in dealing with mental health. “We face a lot of challenges in society as Black men. One is dealing with masculinity and openness about discussing our feelings and emotions. How we are socialized as young boys, it is not normalized to talk about your emotions. And for Black men, it may be really difficult for them to talk about their feelings, and oftentimes they may not even make decisions on their own to go to therapy.”
As we are fighting for change globally, we cannot afford to overlook our mental health. Now is the time to put ourselves first and learn how to confront our pain and grow. We can’t fight for this movement if we aren’t recharged and taking care of ourselves. It will be impossible for us to show up as friends, activists, parents, or siblings if we do not learn how to show up for ourselves. Learning how to stay in touch with our emotions, and our pain is an act of self-preservation. And while now more than ever, it is important to keep fighting for change, we also need to learn how to advocate for ourselves and our well-being.
Here are some resources focusing on Black wellness.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- NAMI Helpline: 1-800-950-6264 or text “NAMI” to 741741
- NIMH Helpline: 1-866-615-6464
- Therapy For Black Girls
- The Breakdown with Dr. Earl: A Mental Health Podcast
- Between Sessions
- Dr. Nedra Glover Tawwab @Nedratawwab
- Dr. Jennifer Mullan @decolonizing therapy
- Minaa B., LMSW @minaa_b
- Ayana Therapy
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Melanin and Mental Health