Race has always been a hot topic, but in the past few years, mass culture has made light of the struggles that PoC face particularly in the West. This is especially accurate for Black people throughout the world. Tune into the television, any news channel can and will be talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet in the United States, where 1 in 5 people are affected by mental illness, why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the Black people with mental illnesses?
It would be untrue to say that the stigma isn’t great throughout all communities. Regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, no one wants to be marked as the neurodivergent one, the depressed one, the bipolar one. Society as a whole has Scarlet Letter-ed those who experience mental illness. That’s not to say that there isn’t any support for those with mental illness to lean on: the state of mental health has been mainstreamed in the United States, a typically progressive nation even to the point where President Barack Obama annually declares the month of May as National Mental Health Awareness Month and establishes a Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force earlier this year. The theme of this year’s National Mental Health Awareness Month is “Life With a Mental Illness”- making the topic of mental illness even more closer to home than ever before.
The historical adversity that Blacks in the diaspora face definitely plays one of the largest roles in the lack of awareness that communities of color face when it comes to mental health. Race and ethnicity in the United States has continuously been linked to socioeconomic and educational status. There is no surprise when one states that African Americans are less likely to receive treatment for mental disorders than adult whites. African American (or those Black diasporans in general) face a variety of regular health issues in our community. I can’t think about the amount of times where my mother has gotten the news that another family member is hypertensive. Even as a preteen I recall my parents warning my teenaged cousin about the dangers of unprotected sex in correspondence with the horrors of HIV.
From a critical lens, as much as I deeply believe in Black solidarity, the community is often very splintered through issues like homophobia, transphobia (ESPECIALLY transmisogyny; the murder of black trans women is a specific example of this), colorism, xenophobia, fatphobia etc. It is not unusual that in our repulsion of those who are unlike us, we display a disinterest in mentally ill members of our community. Although society has collectively expelled her from the public eye (justly), Azealia Banks serves as an apt example of this, but also as a forebear for talking about the mental health of Black women. Following her uncalled for racist rant against the British-Pakistani Zayn Malik (another one of the examples of her not surprising lack of intersectionality), Banks wrongly tried to justify her actions. However, Banks penned an essay about the effects of whiteness on black mental health. It has to be a bit saddening to know that one of the only Black figures willing to speak up decides to periodically plague her career with gross offensiveness.
The lack of mental illness awareness pervades the community through a variety of ways, but one particular trend that I have noticed lately arises is a product of social media. My intent is not to send scorn the way of millennial social media culture, but oftentimes, social media breeds a negative image of those with mental health problems. I see this very often with the recent rise of the “school shooter”. White people are the only ones who go on mass killing sprees at schools and other public areas, but they seem to get throw away their obvious incrimination because society is willing to take the mental illness plea. The problem is that because white serial killers are often allowed to get away with horrible crime, innocent people are consistently characterized as terrorists or gangsters in the media JUST because they are non-white. On the other hand, I feel as it is time for us to collectively look at how inherently flawed that sort of thinking may be because it often demonizes those with mental illness. We start to believe that mental illness is some thing that only whites experience, but what happens when a mentally ill person of color gets wrongly accused of a serious crime? Do we throw away our support because of their mental illness, or do we face the facts and realize that mental health reform, especially in the criminal justice system, is a dire necessity?
I have been at the brink of self-destruction many a time in my life, with little support and very few places to turn to. Speaking about myself, I vaguely feel a lot more satisfied with my own mental health than I ever would have been just months ago. Speaking frankly to the parents and friends that I formerly was never able to reveal anything to and finding therapeutic methods to deal with my mental health aided me in finding myself. There is obviously no fix-all cure; I know it in my experiences with anxiety and depression. However, it really needs to be said that mental illness is exactly what it says in the name: a condition that affects the mind. Illness is illness; there needs to be attention paid to every one of these things. Spirituality is important as a way to cope, but many psychologists have noted that prayer cannot always be the solution for outward problems. As someone who has the utmost respect for us as a fellow Black community and the strife we have gone through, I want to say that we need to lend a hand to individuals with mental illnesses and that, in reality, there may be hands right next to you looking to be held.