Stigma of mental illness in the black community

I once dated this mixed, half white, half Chinese guy, who dressed well…let’s call it urban. I’m not sure how the conversation started but I do recall a time I was at his house, a rather large beautiful upper middle class home and he chuckled at the topic. “Mental illness is a white person thing,” he told me, “black people don’t have time for that.” What a bizarre situation I found myself in. There I was, a young black female, at this bi-racial young man’s house (who enjoyed dressing urban and listening to rap/hip hop) and he was telling me what type of illnesses my people “had time for.” Obviously, I made note in my head never to tell him I suffered from depression and OCD and well…let’s just say we didn’t date for very long.

What a statement! Mental illness is a white person’s illness. As annoying as this young man’s statement was, it was and is a common belief among black people. Heck, he probably heard it from one of his black friends! To me what it really says is you as a black person are not allowed to have a mental illness because you cannot afford that luxury, literally and figuratively. I believe, well I know, this is rooted in the socio-economic status of black people, our history as a people and our standing in society. How can black people have time for mental illness when we have “real” problems? Subtle and overt racism, microaggressions and systematic discrimination that pretty much influences every facet of your entire life, 24/7. In the worst of situations, our men are getting shot all over America.

As a black person with a mental illness, diagnosed or self-professed, you essentially get side-eye from your own community. The incredulous side-eye of judgement. A look that tells you to “stop with that foolishness.” We often tell even our upset children, “let me give you something to cry about.” Your emotional ailment is not justified. This is going to sound crass but essentially, it really stems from the notion, “you’re not a slave like your ancestors, so what’s the problem?” If they withstood slavery, you should be strong enough to handle any mental and emotional suffering, real or imagined.

Even financially, it literally is a luxury. My current therapist charges $140 an hour to start, she gives me a deal only because the person who referred me to her told me she provides services on a sliding scale. I now (after many many years) have coverage, however it’s only for 5 sessions a year, which isn’t much at all really.

Sadly, I believe you see this issue reflected in the psychology and wellness fields in general. When I take a look at the mental health community, I do not see a lot of black faces, or coloured faces for that matter. I do think things will and are changing. I see diversity in the social workers I meet. I see myself and the understanding my experience has created among my family and friends. Little by little, mental illness will no longer be a luxury based on race but merely seen as part of the human condition.

We truly are doing a disservice to ourselves and each other when we deny ourselves of the help and care we may actually need. I believe there are countless black faces of all ages and both genders, suffering in silence from a range of mental illnesses that could be treated. Families broken and lives lost.

How does mental illness differ in your community compared to the mainstream?

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