Mental health

Why I’m so Vocal About My Struggles with Mental Illness

[Contains discussions of mental health and race, mentions of suicidal thoughts, and ableist language]

Those who know me know that I’m vocal about my experiences with mental illness. Most of this blog is littered with articles pertaining to my mental health and my path to getting a better handle on it. I wasn’t always this way.

If you’d have asked eighteen-year-old me to see a therapist, I would’ve screamed ‘no’ and made it incredibly clear that I was insulted. In fact, twelve-year-old me did just that to a pediatric hospital employee during one of my lupus checkups. I didn’t want to be seen or evaluated because I didn’t want another diagnosis. As an adult, I now know that what I didn’t want was actually the stigma from a diagnosis that, at the time, I knew for certain I had.

These days, I’m vocal about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve found that discussing these matters publicly helps others, builds awareness, and fights stigma. I’ve also noticed that it’s crucial for me to speak up about my experiences because I happen to be a woman of color.

Allow me to explain.

When you’re a person of color, you grow up with an awareness of an extra sticky kind of stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s important to note that this stigma is in addition to the regular stigma society places on mental illness. Any and all types of mental illness are considered things that ‘we’ don’t get. As if certain mental illnesses just opt to avoid entire ethnicities with no exception.

As a black woman, I’ve heard some truly horrible things said to men and women struggling with mental illness. If you’re ‘feeling blue’-—or to call a Dementor by its name, depressed-—you’re told that you need to be stronger. Life is just like that sometimes. Be an adult, chin up, get a backbone, and so on. You’re urged to be stronger. This idea that strength means showing no emotion, not crying when you’re upset or just plain need to cry, etc. is dangerous, particularly in men. If you struggle with anxiety or intrusive thoughts, you need to work on your faith because if your spirit was right, you wouldn’t be like this. Again, this is harmful, especially toward those who are highly faith-based and still experience mental illness. If you’re black, you typically grow up in household rooted deeply in belief in a higher power. You believe deeply. To realize that no matter what you do, your faith isn’t enough, often leads to pulling away from religion. As for all the other mental illnesses? We don’t talk about them because ‘we’ don’t get that. How horrible is that?

It gets worse.

It’s implied by our culture that black men are supposed to be pillars of their homes. Black women, on the other hand, are meant to be the backbone, the caregiver, and strong girders running through the bridge that makes up the family. Black women can’t break. She can’t be depressed, she can’t have anxiety, and she can’t break down—at least not where anyone can see. She can’t have days where she can’t get off the couch, she can’t have intrusive thoughts, she has to be ‘solid’. If she does have a mental illness, then she’s weak and it’s shameful. Besides, generations of black women before us dealt with realities that were much worse. They picked cotton, marched for rights, and raised babies alone without uttering a word. Our problems today don’t compare and we should be able to cope, right?

Wrong.

Problems are problems and they’re all valid. Our struggles mental and physical are important and must be discussed. But no. Instead, we choose not to talk about these things. We don’t explain that mental illness happens. We don’t explain that it’s common and runs in families. We don’t tell our children or ourselves that it’s okay to seek help, to take medicine, to get diagnosed.

We don’t talk about it.

We don’t talk about mental illness. We don’t call mental illness out by name. We treat mental illness like it’s Voldemort and use allusions and aliases. We don’t talk about mental health and wellbeing and that bothers me.

It bothers me so much, I had to write a poem regarding my feelings on the issue.

I struggled silently for years and didn’t receive proper help until I was suicidal. I ignored years of offers to see a therapist because I didn’t want to be labeled as ‘crazy’. I quite frankly could’ve been dead because all around me were people reinforcing and perpetuating the harmful ideas they were taught about mental illness. I should not have gotten to that dangerous point in my life. No one should have to get to that point before they receive help.

I refuse to let the dangerous cycle of silence continue.

If I’m going to stop the cycle, if I’m going to stop being complicit, I have to speak up. I’m vocal about my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and depression. I describe my experiences and symptoms. I’m in a place with my mental health that I can comfortably and vocally own it. Going forward, I hope more of us get the courage to do so. It’s important for future generations to know that what they are feeling is valid, that it’s not their fault, and that it’s okay to seek help.

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