I am not OK: stoicism, mental health, and the black community

In the Black community, we do what needs to be done to move past the pain, more often than not, ignoring it entirely.

March 15, 2013

I had a friend in school who wrote about her depression, and I berated her online. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t get over it. In my mind, this was not sickness. And therapy, while good in theory, seemed unnecessary for someone so young, smart, and wealthy living in an affluent suburb. “Why can’t she just push through this?” I used to ask. And as she continued to talk about her pain, I continued to feel angry. “This is not a problem,” I thought. I told a relative about the girl, and they said she was just acting dramatic. And in all of the things that signaled who was and was not a weak person, “acting dramatic,” was one of the worst. There was depression and there was “depression,” and I learned to only recognize the latter.

Eventually, I learned my mistake. It was through my own feelings of stress, inadequacy, isolation from teammates, and loss of major friendships that helped me understand her mindset. And as the feelings of hopelessness and sadness sustained, I knew that mental health was not just something for other people.

My original mindset was born from the pursuit of strength over anything else. Adversity was not a bad word; it was something that gave you character. An excess of adversity was normal. Things are tough? The weight of the world feels like it is resting on your shoulder? Get over it. Or pray on it. But what happens when that is not enough?

While only 54 percent of the general population believes that depression is a personal weakness, 63 perfect of African Americans believe this to be true.

The stigma of “looking crazy” and “acting dramatic” is a profound one. In many ways, the black population is told that this is not something that “we” do. We don’t have the luxury to “revel” in our emotions. We do what needs to be done to move past the pain. Earlier this year, I wrote: “But pushing through often means pushing down, suppressing, or minimizing. This is only a solution for the immediate future. What happens weeks from now, months from now, years from now?” This is what we are talking about when we’re talking about black mental health issues. Are we only addressing the right now and not the future?

Weakness denies one their “blackness.” And maintaining that connection and identity of the community is critical, perhaps even necessary. I struggled with this from a young age. Am I black enough? Are these interests good enough? Am I denying who I truly am by “pretending” that my concerns were in any way similar to the girls around me? For what would I be if not a Strong Black Woman? A weak everywoman, a regular human being. These are not the things that will get one through the unique challenges of the world while black and female. It was strength over everything else, even when strength seemed out of grasp.

According to the 1999 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, while only 54 percent of the general population believes that depression is a personal weakness, 63 percent of African Americans believe this to be true. Only 31 percent recognized depression as a “health problem” and they were far more likely to treat it as normal than other demographics. The top barriers to treatment include denial, embarrassment or shame, and refusing help.

Additionally, according to Clifford L. Broman, PhD, of Michigan State University and a study conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, young adult blacks with higher levels of education are even less likely to seek mental health services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Minority Health reports that blacks living below the poverty line are three times more likely to report psychological stress than blacks living over twice the poverty level. Local community outreach and mental health services have been targeted toward less affluent populations, leaving a hole for those who do not fall within that demographic. Growing up black and middle class, I can attest to this. I was not poor, so there was no need to worry about anything, regardless of how I was feeling. Right?

As a woman, the Strong Black Woman trope reared its head at an early age and did not loosen its grip on my everyday life until the first years of college. An older black receptionist at the office I worked in on my school’s campus changed jobs and suggested I visit her new space, the Community Mental Health Center.

“Sure, I’ll visit you,” I told her.

“Actually,” she began, “I wanted you to see someone here, about how you’re feeling.”

“But I’m feeling fine. It's just a little stress,” I said. I was thinking about my 30+ hour a week internship at a local film festival, my full-time night class schedule, and my campus job for work study. She gave me a look, both sympathetic and denunciatory.

“Just try it, for me,” she replied. She saw something in me that I did not see in myself. I thank her for this everyday.

What is important for the next generation is for others to recognize these symptoms. It is also important to recognize the symptoms in ourselves. I grew up frantically writing in diaries, trying to expel my frustrations through the written word. My journals near more than 50. It is important to say, “I am not OK,” and to do whatever necessary to make a change. Sometimes just talking about the complicated and multi-faceted layers of contemporary life as a young person to someone else is what is needed. If anything, we must give voice to our pain and refuse to accept when that pain overshadows everything else. Whether this is through family members, friends, or figures in pop culture, the stigma of mental health must be eradicated in order to prosper both as individuals and as a community. 

Follow Britt on twitter @britticisms