My Nerves are Bad: What I've Learned about Black Mental Health
Since July is recognized as Black Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve decided to share some of my observations in hopes to raise more awareness and invite conversation. I’ve been working in human services to some capacity my entire adult life. I have been working in mental health specifically for the last five years. I’ve had the privilege of working with at least a couple hundred clients in several capacities such as a psychiatric hospital, a halfway house, rehab center, and a group home. I’ve learned so much about the human psyche and more specifically, how trauma and mental illness is passed down and can impact people for generations. I believe that as a community there’s much work to be done to increase aid for our mental health needs. I’ve highlighted a few things I’ve learned and steps we can all take to increase wellness, even if we aren’t mental health professionals. Full disclosure: mental health is broad. While blogging I am considering trauma, substance abuse, and diagnosed mental illness.
Lesson 1: Healing is mandatory for our progression in society.
Imagine having someone tell you you're free, while they still have social, economic, and political control over your day to day life? I do not believe that it is humanly possible to endure the level of historic and racial trauma African Americans have and to walk away unscathed. Our pain shows up as internalized oppression, colorism, high blood pressure just to name a few. So much of our existence is linked to what has happened to us and our ancestors. I could go on and on about "The Willie Lynch Papers" and institutionalized psychological oppression, but I wont bore you. What I will say is, now is the time to address our mental state. There are more Black folks in therapy then ever recorded. And while there must be more research to increase modalities designed specifically for Black people, talking about your pain does help. We must break free psychologically.
Suggestion: Start up meaningful conversations with loved ones. Ask the people around you, "How do you define trauma?" "How do you cope?" "Do you feel emotionally healthy?" They may look at you sideways, but chances are if the people closest to them haven’t inquired about their mental and emotional health, no one has.
Lesson 2: Language is important.
There are far too many of us misdiagnosed or undiagnosed because of communication barriers. I remember as a little girl being afraid of a relative that I could tell was different. My grandmother would say "It's okay baby, they're just a little slow." It took me many years to understand intellectual disabilities. I have worked with and have many loved ones that take medication because they have "bad nerves" or a "chemical imbalance." It has taken me a long time to accept that they may never use the language in the DSM to describe their mental status. I have reached an understanding where I don't think we should have to. Language is relative. We should embrace all strides toward seeking support about our "nerves" or generalized anxiety disorder.
Suggestion: Pay attention to those old sayings and look for resources that may assist them. I’m not a big fan of unwarranted advice, but I do believe in having resources available for people when it hits the fan and they feel like there’s no hope. Knowledge can help your loved ones see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Lesson 3: Check on your strong friend and your friend who’s always laughing, bailing, or crying out for attention.
So basically just check on all of your friends. And most importantly check on yourself. One of my favorite parts of being a therapist is coaching clients on self-talk. I almost always get a scrunched up face followed by "You want me to talk to myself?" Yes- I do. How are you problem solving? How are you and your loved ones communicating ? Are you getting your needs met? A key component of mental illness is imperative functioning. I am not suggesting that hard times mean you are ill, but I am suggesting that if you always feel like you're having a hard time, your mind might need some attention. Furthermore, if you have that friend that is always struggling and complaining, there may be more than what meets the eye.
Suggestion: Be able to identify thinking distortions and defense mechanisms to know when someone is really in pain vs being “funny acting”. It’s usually not about you.
Lesson 4: Cultural traditions can be unhealthy.
I know, I know- hella unfavorable opinion. I don't believe for a second that the narrative we've been fed about how bad our community is accurate. I've worked with people from all walks of life. I can assure you. Mental illness impacts everyone. We are not exempt and neither are those whose cultures are seen as exemplary. That being said, Black culture has an emphasis on being "strong". It is one of my least favorite words. It makes people think they have permission to test your strength. It can begin to feel like a contest to see who can endure the most hardship without cracking. We pride on ourselves on our resilience, and so, vulnerability is seen as weak. We have to interrupt this mentality. It is hurting our men, our women, and our children. We are human and being magic doesn't mean we aren't real.
Suggestion: Challenge cultural norms that may be unhealthy by not doing them, calling them out when you see them, and be okay with not being liked because of it. Change has to start somewhere.
Lesson 5: Culture traditions can change.
This part. If you would've told me when I pursed psychology eight years ago that so many of my people would soon embrace conversations about mental health, seek treatment, and use social media as a powerful platform to connect, raise awareness, and heal- I would've thought you were lying. I am so proud to see so many young Black folks willing to address depression, bipolar, psychosis and other illnesses. It takes courage, but we have it. We've shown in just a short amount of time that Black mental health matters to us. My hope is that this is not a phase, but rather, a cultural shift to have our needs met on our terms.
Suggestion: Take care of your mental It’s not always rewarding at first to lead by example, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Get a therapist. Go to healing circles and support groups. What happened in your house doesn’t have to stay there. Treatment for mental health in our community is changing, you deserve to be well too.
If you are looking for a therapist in your area, please consider using Therapy for Black Girls at https://www.therapyforblackgirls.com/.
Art: Detail of 'Seriti,' from Tsoku Maela's "Abstract Peaces," 2016.
My Nerves are Bad: What I've Learned about Black Mental Health
By Hybrie Jenae