By Brakeyshia R. Samms
As a Black woman living with mental illness, I’ve been told plenty of times by other Black people that I should not talk about my experience managing my mental health condition. That sentiment is always frustrating and discouraging to hear.
The pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black community often makes me feel like my life is embarrassing and that I must hide a major part of myself. Sometimes, this shame can be too much to bear. But it also led me to wonder: How widespread is mental illness itself in the Black community? I figured that understanding the statistics would make it easier to erase the stigma.
I did some research, and as it turns out, I am certainly not the only Black person experiencing mental illness. Among the nearly 5 million Black people living with a mental illness, nearly a quarter reported having a serious condition, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, among many others.
Despite that sizeable number, only 1 out of every 3 seek suitable treatment, which could include meeting with a mental health professional, such as a social worker, therapist or psychiatrist. While there are many factors contributing to the discrepancy between prevalence and people seeking adequate treatment — ranging from the prevalence of misdiagnosis to the lack of access to adequate medical care — stigma in the Black community still remains an insidious culprit.
The Black community, and truly all communities, can engage in four activities to help get rid of stigma around mental illness.
Stigma stems from a lack of knowledge, and the best way to fight a gap in information is by educating others in our community. There are numerous public resources on the different types of mental illnesses. Personally, I turned to resources on websites for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America.
These were helpful places to start because they provided me with basic information and helped me recognize the negative preconceived notions I had about mental illness. They also directed me to places where I could learn even more. I also sought advice on what to read from the mental health professionals in my life, which I suggest everyone do as well. I read so many books and articles that, eventually, I had the language I needed to speak about my mental illness.
I have noticed that, in our community, we often equate strength with being silent and stoic — and that speaking up and asking for help is weakness. I believe the opposite is true. That’s why I have chosen to be open with my family and friends about living with a mental illness — and I emphasize the fact that I have won prestigious fellowships, scholarships and awards in spite of it all. I’ve also written about seeking help after experiencing a traumatic event.
Living with a mental illness doesn’t define anyone, nor does it limit anyone’s abilities. Showcasing our best selves — with mental health issues and all — reveals to some that we are just as capable as anyone else when it comes to leading a successful life.
As more Black people open up about living with a mental illness, the closer we will get to dismantling the stigma in our community. There is genuine comradery found in knowing that I am not the only Black person living with a mental illness. Celebrities like Taraji P. Henson, Jenifer Lewis and Janet Jackson, among many others, have opened up about their experiences with mental illnesses ranging from depression to bipolar disorder. Henson even founded The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 in memory of her late father. The more we recognize that mental illness can affect anyone, from your next-door neighbor to your personal hero, the more real and less frightening mental illness becomes to our community.
Believing people when they say they have a mental illness is vital to eradicating stigma. When someone has a mental health crisis or expresses emotional distress, telling them to simply “pray it away” or to “fix your attitude” isn’t helpful. Failing to consider that people do, in fact, live with mental illness — and being dismissive in our advice — dissuades people from coming forward with how they are truly feeling. This sometimes causes people to not seek appropriate medical help.
These suggestions are just first steps when it comes to overcoming mental health stigma in the Black community. We must do better and be better when it comes to supporting other Black people living with mental illnesses, myself included. I hope my thoughts push discussions further and foster a more productive and positive dialogue. While not everyone in the Black community has a diagnosis, it’s important to keep in mind that mental illness can affect anyone, including our community.
Brakeyshia R. Samms is a writer who lives with a mental illness and works as a policy analyst. She has previously published essays in The Huffington Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Austin American-Statesman and Invisible Illness. All opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of her affiliations.
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