At times, it's hard to believe that over 22 years ago, I almost took my life due to depression. Being a black female and growing up in the 1960's where black people had way more to deal with than mental health conditions, mental health was never really discussed.
Fast forward to 2017, and it’s mind-boggling just how far behind the African-American culture is when it comes to mental health and suicide. There are so many reasons why this is that I could probably write a book on them. However, for this blog, I’m just going to focus on three:
A Mental Health Condition Means You’re “Crazy”
Relentless stigma accompanies mental health conditions. From the words we use—like "crazy,” “cray cray,” “psycho,” “nuts”—to hurtful jokes about people who live with mental health conditions, stigma surrounding mental health in my culture is deep-rooted. But there is no shame in having a mental health condition. The true shame is not getting the treatment you need to have a good life. Let’s all use National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to take the time to learn the facts from the stigmatizing fiction.
African-Americans need to know: A mental health condition is no different than a physical one. Our brains are the most important organ in our bodies and can get sick just like our hearts, lungs and livers. Not only that, you can recover from a mental health condition and lead a healthy life. Further, African-Americans are not immune from mental health conditions, and 5.6% of us die by suicide. Up to about two million (10%) African-American men live with depression.
A Mental Health Condition is a Sign of Weakness
I was going on 35 years old, with no clue that I had clinical depression. I had never been in trouble with the police, didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. But I found myself sitting in the back of a police car on the way to a mental hospital, and I kept thinking to myself, “What had I done wrong?” When I arrived at the psychiatric hospital and called my mom to let her know where I was, the first thing she said to me spoke volumes: “You just need to be stronger.” This is a battle cry for African-Americans.
Getting help for a mental health condition in my culture’s eyes is a sign of weakness, a personal flaw—not a legitimate, clinical condition. In fact, 63% of African-Americans believe that a mental health condition is a personal sign of weakness. To be honest, I believe that number is higher. I know when I walked into that mental hospital 22 years ago, I thought it was going to be everything I’d seen on TV and heard my mom talk about. It was neither. As bad as that day was, it was the beginning of me becoming educated about mental health—which was important not just for me, but for my culture and society as a whole.
A Mental Health Condition is “in God’s Hands”
According to a recent Gallup survey, African-Americans are the most religious culture in the United States. Our deep-rooted religious beliefs go all the way back to slavery, when religion was the one solid foundation we had during those times. Our ancestors then—like we African-Americans now—lived with depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD but back then, there weren’t any names for those conditions. Back then, people battling a mental health condition were simply locked up, wandered the streets or even put to death.
With all that my culture had to deal with throughout history, present-day African-Americans feel we don’t need help mentally. All we need to do today is the same our ancestors did, which is: “Pray about it. Give it to God.” But you wouldn’t tell someone with cancer, diabetes or heart problem to just pray about it or give it to God, would you? You’d hopefully say: “You need to see a doctor.” But when it comes to mental health in the African-American community, there is very little compassion or empathy.
Don't get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with praying for recovery from a mental health condition, but we still have to be proactive. We can’t “pray away” a mental health condition. We have to get help. And I am living proof of that.
After receiving treatment, I am living proof that as an African-American female, you can have a mental health condition and thrive! I am proud to be an advocate for NAMI Charlotte and even prouder to be on the board on NAMI NC. Join me in stomping out stigma in all cultures!
Fonda Bryant is very active in the community bringing awareness to mental health. She has been a volunteer with NAMI Charlotte for over three years and recently was elected to the state board of NAMI NC. She also volunteers with MHA of Central Carolinas and with the AFSP. She speaks to the rookie classes of CMPD, and is vocal about mental health, whether on television, in the newspaper or radio, her passion for mental health knows no boundaries.
Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on NAMI.org in July 2017.