When I was diagnosed several years ago with anxiety and Bipolar II Disorder, I thought my world had come to an end. I already felt isolated, but now I had to deal with the added stigma, the weight and reality of being a black girl with mental illness.
If mental illness ran in my family, there was no way of knowing -- nobody talked about it. And while my immediate family was as supportive and understanding as they could be, I always assumed that with their concern came a certain amount of incredulity about my diagnosis.
As a teenager, I was and still am a pop culture junkie. I looked to music, television and film to get me through the darkness. And while these things helped to focus my mind, I was still struck by how few black women in the public eye were openly dealing with depression. It felt like I had no point of reference for what I was going through.
At 27, I still struggle with my anxiety and depression. But there are things I've learned as a black woman with a mental illness over the last decade that have been vital:
1. Being black and having a mental illness are not mutually exclusive.
The narrative of black people not believing in mental illness isn't entirely accurate -- more and more, discussions about mental illness amongst black people are coming to the forefront. But there's no denying that in some pockets of the community, stigma still exists. I had to unlearn the lie, subtlety taught to me throughout my adolescence, that things like depression and anxiety are a "white" thing (or, since I'm from Ghana, are a "Western" thing). According to Black Women's Health, black people make up around 25% of the mental health needs in the United States (the majority being women). No one is "less black" because they are mentally ill.
2. It's OK to not be OK.
There are many stereotypes and narratives imposed upon black women, and perhaps the most pervasive is the "Strong Black Women" trope. Black women are strong, but sometimes we're taught to believe that because of that strength there's no room for vulnerability. Going through something? Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep it moving. Swallow your pain and put on a brave face -- a non-threatening face, an agreeable face. But in dealing with mental illness, it becomes clear that sometimes the strongest thing one can do is admit that they're not OK. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses do not make you weak.
3. Racism and misogynoir can play a part in how you feel.
It's been found that there can often be a correlation between racism and depression and anxiety in people of color, with some scientists even finding link between racism and post-traumatic stress. For black women especially, rates of mental illness are higher simply because we stand at the intersections of race and gender, susceptible to, as Dr. George Leary writes in Black Women's Health, experiences including "racism, cultural alienation, and violence and sexual exploitation." And it doesn't have to be overt. Sometimes, just being the only black person in predominantly white spaces can be emotionally taxing. Before I even knew what anxiety was, I can remember having breakdowns and panic attacks in situations where I felt othered or alienated because of my race. Recognizing this correlation has been a big part of understanding my illness.
4. It's OK to ask for help.
Not only is it OK to not feel OK, it's OK to ask for help. Help can come in many different forms, from talking to a friend, or practicing self care, or following a religion, or seeking the advice of a medical professional. Whatever it looks like, asking for help is integral. For a long time, it was difficult opening up to doctors who I often felt could not truly understand my experiences. But, quite frankly, I got over it. I believed that asking for help would be a sign of weakness or a sign of conceding defeat. It's anything but.
5. You are not alone.
I used to think that I had no point of reference for my experiences, that while there certainly must be other black women in the world dealing with mental illness, they were somehow hidden away from me. But something brilliant happened when I finally began to acknowledge and speak out about my struggles. By writing through my experience and talking with friends, I met countless other black women in the same boat. I realized that I am not alone. And that, in and of itself, has been an amazing step towards healing.
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