Oped in partnership with Refinery 29 for July, Minority Mental Health Awareness Month
I remember vividly the day I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I was 15 years old, and to say the diagnosis was a double-edged sword is an understatement. On one end, I breathed a deep sigh of relief at finally having an explanation for my diminished relationships, extreme sadness and hopelessness, and withdrawn behavior. But as a young African-American girl, that brief sense of relief was quickly followed by feelings of intense shame and isolation. Why? Because, from the way I understood the world, Black people don’t have mental health issues.
You almost certainly know there’s a stigma when it comes to mental illness, but it seems to run particularly deep among minorities. Within the African-American community, it’s common to believe that prayer is the best response to any shortcoming, and to perceive any form of weakness as mortal sin, all of which means mental health issues are something to keep hidden. Not only do these age-old protective measures cause many to suffer as I did — alone and in silence — but these beliefs run completely contradictory to what we know actually helps those who struggle with mental illness live a mentally healthy life.
I am proud that since my diagnosis 13 years ago, I decided to come out from the shadows — both to be intentional about making my own mental wellness a top priority, and to advocate for others. As the founder of Black Girls Smile Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive mental health for young African American females, I am able to give purpose to my struggle. Because even today, with universal healthcare including mandated mental health treatment, so many still suffer in silence and do not feel comfortable seeking the treatment they so desperately need.
But what makes me most hopeful about the future of mental health (both mine and others’) is remembering that people, dare I say women especially, are a resilient bunch; we conquer adversity in many areas of life and lend a helping hand throughout. The real question is: How, through our resilience, do we get to a mentally healthy place and maintain it?
Mental health professionals point to three important keys to individuals leading mentally healthy lives and communities achieving mental wellness:
1. Education. It is extremely difficult to tackle any issue on a personal level or community level without actually understanding the issue. For one thing, many people still associate mental health with mental illness, when in fact we all have mental health: Mental illness is the dysfunction of one’s mental health. So it’s important to spread the knowledge that mental health should be a priority for us all, even those who don’t struggle with mental illness — sort of like how healthy eating, exercise, and sleep are important parts of living a healthy life, even if you aren’t facing physical disease.
I also admire the behavioral health organizations that are working to educate people about how to help someone dealing with a mental health crisis. Most notably, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) has been sweeping the country with endorsements from such notable figures as First Lady Michelle Obama. MHFA is an evidence-based curriculum that trains participants to recognize warning signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties and help those in need access resources and support.
2. Resources. Access to adequate healthcare has been a major obstacle, especially for minority women seeking mental health assistance. That doesn’t just mean insurance coverage for mental health care; it can also mean logistical assistance, such as finding child care, to make mental health care something that can actually fit into women’s lives. One promising area of improvement here is technology, which is already actively helping increase access to resources. From the Crisis Text Line (a 24/7 text-message resource for individuals in crisis) to numerous teletherapy websites, help is literally at our fingertips. I would challenge minority women in particular to take advantage of these and other convenient, affordable ways to access mental health care.
3. Support. Mental health difficulties do not just affect the individual dealing with them — these challenges also touch their family, friends, and communities. As the discussion surrounding mental health and mental illness is becoming normalized, we need to support one another in the quest for mental wellness. This can be as simple as asking someone how they are doing and really taking the time to invest in the answer, not just looking for the usual “Good!” Providing a safe space for those you love to discuss their own mental health (and mental health difficulties) is an important way to continue normalizing these conversations — and it can literally save lives.