Dissecting Strength in the Black Community
My grandmother goes through weeks of not eating due to paranoia. Fear that someone has poisoned her food- even fresh vegetables and fruits that she buys herself from the grocery store keep her from consuming anything for days on end. She is nervous and rambling at times, her mental health is not stable. Still, she has never been to a psychologist, never to a therapist, never to a doctor to speak about the state of her mind. On the rare occasion that my family speaks about an elephant in the room, they only solution they can come up with is to pray. After an extreme incident where she returned to the store to berate the shop owner that her vegetables had been poisoned, I asked my mother why they wouldn’t just take her to get an evaluation? She is strong and healthy otherwise, her quality of life could be so much better. The only reply I got was, “Lauren, momma ain’t going to the doctor.” The idea of my grandmother appearing as the ‘crazy’ town lady screaming over vegetables sends chills down my spine. Sadly this occurrence of untreated mental health is no stranger to the black American community and it is scarcely spoken about.
While mental health has become more culturally accepted, that of marginalized people remains hidden under slumping roofs and old foreclosed homes, in the shadows of the mainstream.
The black experience in the United States has never been a simple one. To maintain the will to survive throughout history was a radical act. The most dangerous threats to black bodies were not those of racism, poverty, or even violence. Rather something much more sinister, that of the soul, nihilism. Cornel West describes the buffers of this phenomenon in his book, Race Matters, to be the culture that black people set up to survive. These, West states, consisted of religious and civic institutions that sustained networks of support.
For some time, this seemed to work. Black Americans had the lowest rates of suicide until the early seventies. However, now, black children are taking their lives at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Unsurprisingly, while things like religion and family are nice support systems, mental illness is scientific and one cannot simply be ‘fixed’ by a sermon on a Sunday morning or even a loving family. Each day as we surge forward into a world that is more fast-paced and globally connected yet out of touch, the need for mental health intervention becomes infinitely more important.
There is a lack of visibility around mental illnesses within black communities- a lack of discussion. For older generations, the most important things were finding a way to pay the bills when Jim Crow was always two steps ahead, blocking attempts to provide for their families. The most important things were making sure that their kids went to school, studied, and fell in line because even looking at a white woman in a bad mood could get you brutally murdered, as Emmett Till was. There just wasn’t time to worry about feeling anxious or sad. For a while, the institutions in place were enough to hold people together, and they still play an important role in black Americans lives. As traditionally black neighborhoods’ residents move away for better opportunities or are slowly forced out due to forces of gentrification, places that once served as catalysts for community networks are no longer the same. Without networks and community, the problems within the environments surrounding black Americans become more apparent.
A study by the Pew Research center stated that 69 percent of blacks feel spiritually at peace compared to 56 percent of white Americans and 45 percent of Asian Americans. However, with rates of violence and poverty within primarily black spaces, the possibility of developing PTSD and anxiety disorders skyrockets. This paired with sole reliance on spirituality and religion has created generationally untreated mental health problems. What my aunts, uncles, and cousins are learning from the way my grandmother's health is being handled, without intervention from an outsider, will most likely be passed down and repeated within their own lives.
Over 60 percent of black women have shown signs of depression, however, it goes mostly untreated. While depression is often diagnosed as a chemical imbalance, outside pressures can make it significantly worse. Black women deal with both racism and sexism within their communities just as much as outside of them. The poem White boy, Black Girl illustrates this phenomenon, “black girl/still jumping/with two ropes/trying not/ to get hung.” The pressure that black women face maintaining strong, while often providing for often intergenerational families in one lifetime, and dealing with societal maltreatment goes hand in hand with stress levels which can trigger anxiety that can cause problems to your physical health. This can create a more vicious cycle.
There are historical reasons beyond money and location insecurity that prevented black Americans from getting medical help. There is a cultural mistrust of doctors and other medical authorities due to the mistreatment of black bodies for centuries. The most famous case, the Tuskegee study, a study in which over a span of forty years black men were infected with Syphilis and did not treat them in order to watch the disease run its course. While horrible, there are plenty of stats surrounding the black community and public health that tell black people the services don’t always work for them. Among those, the fact that black women are are three times as likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related issues. This problem has recently come into the spotlight with famous black women such as Beyonce and Serena Williams and there have been petitions for change. Beyond that black people are often rated lower on their pain level and taken less seriously when they voice concerns with their health. Many of the things black Americans, and women more specifically, have struggled with have remained problems because of the often implicit bias in healthcare.
Getting help for mental health problems has been a long time seen as something that only the white and wealthy did. While there is a scarcity of health advocacy in general throughout the United States, and especially in marginalized communities, the acceptance that receiving help is simply “not for me” is detrimental. If you believe that resources aren’t for you, the possibility of receiving help becomes obsolete. Programs like Therapy for Black Girls, a database of black therapists all over the United States, are seeking to shift ideas within the black community about taking care of ourselves mentally.
With time, things can change, and slowly, they will. Joy Harden Bradford started Therapy for Black Girls because she saw the amount of healing that needed to take place in the community. She also hosts podcasts as a form of media that can reach black women everywhere to hear about why putting mental health first is important. Dione Metzger, a board-certified psychiatrist, professor, and health media expert recently discussed the effects of media on black mental health. After an episode of Blackish focusing on postpartum depression, she reports that she received a surge in phone calls from women wanting to discuss similar problems they faced in their lives. This is a huge example as to why media exposure into narratives focused around people of color are so valuable and have become such a topic of discussion. Media shapes so much of our realities, and in this case, could literally be saving lives.
Survival in a country and community that reminds you time and time again that you are less than is a testament to resilience and strength. However, our mental health shouldn’t suffer in the name of being strong, a sentiment born from a sexist and racist ideal of what black women ought to be. Strength comes from taking care of yourself, not from constantly holding up others and disregarding your own pain. Zora Neale Hurston said, “if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”