I knew I made a mistake when my mother saw that letter. I had managed to hide my letters from her up to this point as she had an affinity for opening them, but I regretted showing the letter to her that day. “What does this mean?” She asked with worry in her eyes but it came across as pure anger. Therapy was not an option for me.
Many black kids, as well as adults, struggle to talk about mental health in the home. It has become such a taboo subject, it is often greeted with anger, judgment, disapproval, or dismissal. This topic is discouraged within the black community, which causes difficulties for black people to engage with health services.
Cultural barriers are not the only reason why black communities may be reluctant to attend health services. Language barriers, lack of publicity for mental health support services, and even professionals having a lack of knowledge of what is important to meet black people’s needs are all valid reasons why mental health within the black community is difficult to tackle.
My mother was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2007 following her nervous breakdown. I was only six at the time yet the trauma of seeing my mother like that stuck with me my entire life. It affected how I built relationships with other people, I also felt a sense of guilt as I wasn’t able to help her at the time. This, amongst many other traumatic experiences in my life, was the root of my declining mental health. I did not realise this until I was getting physical responses to my trauma such as random chest pains that would last from a couple of minutes to a couple of days.
When my doctor referred me to a counsellor on the suspicion of me showing signs of depression and anxiety, I went into panic mode. The immediate concern about my mother being either disappointed or feeling guilty that I got to that stage washed over me. Although I was old enough for my medical information to remain private, it didn’t mean anything once I was back home.
One day I had received a letter about recommended places for therapy and confronted my mother about it a couple of weeks later. I couldn’t bear hiding this part of my life from her and thought it was the right thing to do. I had already visited a school counsellor prior to the doctor appointment just to deal with my high levels of stress and to support a friend who was also attending therapy. As I thought, my mother wasn’t happy about the news. I know that this came from her personal experience with mental health services and the way she was treated as a result of her illness. She didn’t want me to go through the same thing. However, the way it came across did not show that. Soon I became reluctant to express any negative emotions around my mother and started to keep more things to myself. To this day I am still afraid of getting professional help in fears of watching my mother relapse because she drowned herself in guilt over me potentially having the same type of depression as her.
However, what I started to do was become more aware of my emotions and learn how to process them healthily. I know I still have a long way to go when it comes to being more appreciative of myself and learning when certain emotions are okay to feel. However, I have definitely made progress from where I was before.
Therefore, my advice for those who are looking for ways to support their black friends in this situation is simple:
Encourage your black friends to talk about how they feel. They NEED to be heard. Their trauma is not just limited to what has happened in their personal lives but also the systematic racism they have to face on a daily basis- directly or indirectly. Simply talking about their experiences is enough to make them feel that someone is there to support them.
If they begin to open up, don’t cut them off. Hearing black people discuss their personal issues and open about their mental health is one of the most important things that could happen. From what I’ve experienced and already discussed, mental health is extremely difficult to talk about within the black community so letting them open up may be one of the small chances that they get to express themselves.
Never invalidate their feelings. You don’t know what they’ve been through or how it has affected them, the same way they don’t know about you. Pain is relative and you telling them that it isn’t that bad because you don’t feel the same way or it hasn’t affected you personally, will only cause them to become more reserved.
Protect your black friends. They need to know that they have others to rely on, and it’s not something to keep to themselves.
If you are a black person who is suffering from talking about mental health or even experiencing mental health issues yourself, please remember that you’re not alone. There are services available for you to discuss with other black people who may be feeling the same way, as well as a helpline to call. Ask for a professional who is a person of colour. They are more likely to understand and meet your needs as a black person.
After my mother calmed down from her outburst she hugged me and let me know that she didn’t want me to go through what she went through and I could tell her anything. Simple acts like this can be the beginning of destigmatising black mental health. Remember, you are never alone and your voice deserves to be heard. Listen to those around you; care for them. Let’s stop mental health from being a taboo subject one talk at a time.
The Black African and Asian Therapy Network