By: Randa Shami
As black women we face a double whammy in society. We are trying to find our identities in world where being black is seen as ‘other’ as well as battling patriarchy. Sometimes we find it hard to admit when we’re struggling and end up suffering in silence. This silence is sometimes powered by the fear that there is no support, whether this support comes from family, friends, communities or professions.
Among black families and communities there is a lack of acknowledgment that mental health problems are real. ‘We do not have time to be depressed.’ ‘Depression is a white man’s illness.’ ‘Have you prayed?’ We have all heard our parents or other members of our family say something along these lines in relation to mental health. However, despite this, mental health problems have time for us!
In my own experience I have found that the support, understanding, or at least the willingness to try and understand the battle one faces everyday with mental health problems is a key feature in the journey to recovery. The lack of support or understanding could hinder one’s recovery and will only strengthen the barrier we have put up for ourselves as a community.
Countless times I have heard people recall stories of a member of their church who had symptoms which mirrored depression or anxiety and were not told to seek the help of a psychologist or even listened to. They were however, shunned by the church and told to pray. Yes, religion can bring hope, inner peace and strength, but we wouldn’t tell a cancer patient not to seek a doctor and only pray. Thus, why are we telling those suffering from mental health problems that their illness is not of the same caliber?
As a woman bought up in an African family I was never taught about mental health nor was the topic ever discussed among my family. Despite this I went on to complete a degree in Psychology and began to present the subject to my family and friends (from similar backgrounds). In doing so I discovered there was a gap in our understanding of mental well-being. There was a stigma that covered the topic and sometimes even a disinterest in recognizing the importance of one’s mental health.
Furthermore, I realized that members of my family had or were currently tackling depression and/or anxiety. Despite the power that this topic seemed to have over us, we never came together as a family to break down the walls of silence surrounding mental well-being. In fact conversions were held in secret and without intention we were feeding the beast of ignorance. We were also putting a greater strain on those who did have depression and/or anxiety and those who were trying to support them. We were enabling the stigma surrounding mental health among black families.
I believe to conquer the stigma we must first openly acknowledge that mental well-being is real and a problem that needs to be tackled. This can simply be done by educating ourselves, our parents and children about the different types of mental health problems and by opening the door for conversation on the subject to be had. Moreover, it is important that we listen to those who are battling with mental health issues.
For this motion to occur it is essential that black women and men who have or are facing this fight step out of the shadows and tell their story. This can be done by simply talking to your families, friends or church groups about the issue. I found that these conversations which can lead to acknowledgement and understanding are the most difficult part. This is because you must try to understand and/or explain something which is in itself unexplainable. Nevertheless, silence only gives power to the illness and the stigma and also makes support stagnant.
I have also found that family members who act as the anchor to those who are struggling with mental well-being also need support. Even as someone who has studied Psychology, Ive found that you can never be prepared for the feeling that overwhelms you when you have to watch a loved one battle a mental health problem.
I realized that I too was suffering in silence. I was happy to carry the cross by myself instead of embracing our culture which highlights the importance of community.
I learned that the support network itself must be strong otherwise no one can recover, it is important that family members support each other, along with NCMHCE trained specialists, if necessary. To achieve this we must first break the stigma and acknowledge mental well-being as a real issue. Both journeys (the one battling mental health and their support network) are valid and both sides of the story need to be told.