Life as a Black Girl Mental Health

Discovering My Mental Illness Abroad


By: Emerald Rutledge

First, I would like to preface this piece by saying that I too am that black girl who was raised in a family where mental illness just was not a reality. It was always something that “them white folks had” and “black folks don’t have that.” I am sure that the constant repetition of those words replaying in my mind heavily impacted my ability to recognize my depression when it first hit, as opposed to when I was 9000 miles away from my closest friends and family during my study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa this past semester. I would like to provide some context, to allow you all to understand how I got to where I am right now.

In 2014, during my 2nd semester of my freshman year of college, my dad decided that he no longer wanted to be married. Now, growing up in this household with my parents for the last 20 years, I honestly had no problem with them divorcing. Since the time that I could understand that the way that their relationship functioned was completely dysfunctional, I realized that maybe they weren’t meant for each other. However, I do believe that there is a proper way to do everything, no matter how difficult it may seem.

I found out about my parents separating when I came home for spring break during my freshman year, the day before my now bestfriend was due to come spend the week with me. I remember my dad calling me down into the basement, and him angrily yelling at me, “I’m divorcing your mother, and there’s nothing nobody can do about it.” I remember my mom staring at him repeating, “Don’t do this right now, she has company coming, that’s not right…” I was in utter shock that by that point, my dad had put our house up for sale, and had already found an apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and my mom are originally from.

I think my biggest feeling was disappointment. I was disappointed in the fact that my dad, who has been a reverend for the past 20 years, not only could walk away from his family, but do it in the most disgusting way possible. Each word he said to me that day felt so malicious, so intentional, so unapologetic. Everything, from that day, felt like a downward spiral. During the course of the break, my mom and I had a few conversations about how everything had transpired because I had been away at school in Ohio.

She told me that the day after their 23rd wedding anniversary in Alabama, 2 months prior to me coming home for the break, he stayed there and didn’t come back for weeks at a time. For some odd reason, my dad felt like his unnecessary and immature behavior would have no impact on me because I was now 18, but of course, he was wrong.

Honestly, I felt even more hurt, angry, and confused because when I left for college, everything was okay, but in the 7 months that I had been gone, all hell had broken lose. Literally. Instead of asking my parents to allow me to see a psychologist, I pretended as if I wasn’t hurt, disappointed, disgusted, and confused. I swallowed all of my feelings and went back to school as if my world was not crumbling at home. Understand that my dad put our house up for sale, against my mother’s wishes, assuming that the house would quick sale.

By the time I returned home for summer break, the house had not sold. December came around, still not sold. This means that the house was now going into foreclosure, not because my mother couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage, but because everything at that time was being done out of self-centeredness and malice on my dad’s part. However, I continued to act as if there was nothing wrong, which was very dangerous because I had almost convinced myself that I was okay.

Fastforward to May 2015 when I find out that I had been approved to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I must say that I was excited, but definitely unprepared. I was unprepared psychologically and emotionally to be away from those who had provided me with a sense of sanity since my parents separated. I chose to study abroad in South Africa because I wanted to be surrounded by beautiful, melinated people. However, I didn’t exactly have the amazing experience that I had imagined.

My study abroad program consisted of 33 students, 3 of which were black students. I ended up living in a house with 9 other white girls. The feelings of isolation, exclusion, and loneliness were very heavy, present, and suffocating. Those awkward moments where you wash and blow dry your hair, and everyone is staring at your hair, asking “so…what exactly are you gonna do with it?” Or consistently making insensitive comments about black people both in America and South Africa. It got to the point to where I did everything in my room but eat. I was baffled at how I could be suffocated by whiteness, in Africa.

The 2 white friends that I did manage to make in the house, who were relatively conscious, would go out of their way to try and make me feel comfortable, but there was nothing that they could do because they themselves lacked basic knowledge about black culture and fell into the, “so can you tell me how you get those braids in your hair” trap.

During our semester break, my grandmother passed away. This added to the sadness and isolation I felt because I felt that there was no one that I even wanted to talk to about everything that was going on with me emotionally and psychologically. Luckily for me, I got to come back to the states for my grandmother’s funeral. Although I was back for such a sad occasion, I was glad to be able to see my family. They didn’t have to say much, I just appreciated being around them.

Following my return to Cape Town was when I hit rock bottom. I was sleeping for 15 hours out of the day, not eating, not going to classes, and not being motivated to do anything. Many of you may know of the student protests that took place across South Africa in October, #FEESMUSTFALL and #ENDOUTSOURCING. On the second day of the protests at the University of Cape Town, I had an anxiety attack in the middle of the march.

After going to the doctor, I was sent immediately to see a psychiatrist. That psychiatry appointment was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to sit through in my entire life. I explained to the psychiatrist everything that had happened in my life within the past year and a half, after which he diagnosed me with severe anxiety and depression as well as borderline personality disorder.

I then began to see a psychologist twice a week up until it was time for me to return to the states. Both my psychiatrist and psychologist believed that my disorder had developed from the dysfunctional relationship I’ve had with my dad my entire life, witnessing his relationship with my mom, and everything that had happened recently.

Seeing the psychologist was literally the best thing that could’ve happened to me at that time. I was able to dig into my past and connect dots to more recent situations. Seeing a psychologist, regardless of the stigmas surrounding it, can be extremely helpful and beneficial if you allow yourself to be vulnerable to the process. I say this as a person who had no other choice in that moment, who was suicidal and completely helpless.

It is so easy for us, as black women, to think that we can suffer through whatever comes our way, because that’s how our mothers are and that’s how they’ve raised us. However, when you know you are at your end or making your way there, do not be afraid to tell someone and ask for help.

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4 years 11 months ago

Thank you for sharing your experience!

4 years 11 months ago

God, it was like you were writing this for me. We have the same disorders. My anxiety and depression was so crippling. I couldn’t even complete school. I had to drop out just so I wouldn’t hurt my college gpa in case I wanted to go somewhere else. My BPD had me suicidal and I was going through this emotional and mental battle with my ex. He was literally destroying me and I honestly thought I was insane. My parents wouldn’t -and still don’t- believe I have any mental disorders. I had a family member tell me to my face,… Read more »