I remember the barren look in my mother’s eyes when I told her I was diagnosed with depression and was also taking medication to treat it. It was as if the words that had left my lips were too weighty for her to carry. Full of too much pain for her to even try to digest because it might make her sick to her stomach and upset the taste of truth.
This is my story, but it’s also the story of many black women. Women with mahogany skin are constantly having to hide their pain because they are told that it’s too much, too serious, too exaggerated. I had always been told and taught that my pain could go away if I worked a little harder, slept a little later, ate a little more, or complained a little less. Being depressed while wrapped in black skin is difficult not only for my kin, but for the society that I live in.
Someone asked me once if I think progress is being made to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in our society. I didn’t know how to answer. One part of me believes the answer is yes, we are making progress. Yes, because years ago, the word depression seemed a little dirty. Like it was a foreign language that only the hurt and broken understood. But now people are having open conversations about depression and anxiety. Celebrities are openly talking about going to rehab, not just for drugs, but for emotional stability. Wellness blogs are flooding the market, giving space for folks to have conversations about trauma, eating disorders, even suicide, and also putting on events for people to have a safe space to openly receive and give advice on mental health and wellness. I think all of this is beautiful. I think all of this is necessary. But I also think there’s something missing.
Which is why the other part of me felt the answer is no. No, because I have come to realize that whenever I’m in spaces talking about my depression, my past with cutting, my mental health, they’re white spaces. I am always the only black girl on the panel. I am always the only black guest speaker. I am always locking eyes with the one or two black girls in the audience full of white women, letting them know that they are seen and heard.
I also believe real progress toward erasing mental health stigma requires more than a discussion; it’s about resources and access. When we talk about mental health and we talk about eating balanced meals, sustaining an exercise regimen, and seeking out holistic doctors and therapists, we also have to take into account classism and how there is a whole population of people who still lack access to grocery stores that provide fresh and affordable foods. The neighborhood in which I currently live is flooded with delis, liquor stores, and fast food restaurants. To get to the nearest Trader Joe’s, one needs a vehicle. To have access to quality doctors, one needs quality insurance. What this shows me is that mental health is moving in a direction that serves a certain group of people while so many others are still waiting to have a seat at the table. Too often, black and brown people still have to prove themselves good enough to speak on panels, to educate in classrooms, and, most importantly, to be seen as people who are also affected by mental health and illness rather than as thugs and black girls with bad attitudes.
I can’t lie. I can’t agree that progress is being made just because one race of people is at the forefront of the mental health movement. I think progress means knowing and understanding how something affects all people. It means meeting people where they are and understanding their stories. It means looking to your left and to your right, and asking yourself, does everyone in this space look like me, talk like me, and have the same social status as me? Because if that’s true, it’s not progress. That is privilege.
This year, as we continue to work on this thing called progress and solidarity, I challenge people to be aware of the spaces that they occupy and the folks who have not been granted a seat at the table. I encourage you to think about the simple things like, do I have access to healthy food options in my neighborhood or am I living in a food desert? Do I feel like my medical doctor honors my complaints or am I treated as if my concerns don’t matter? Are all these wellness trends that I load onto my calendar and into my cart easily accessible to everyone and not just people who look like me? Understand that inclusivity is necessary for progress. There is an abundance of people of different races who have something to contribute, and are waiting to be seen and heard and not tucked away in the corners of society only to preach to their own.
Let’s make it a habit to see all people. To love on all people. To include all people. To learn the stories of all people. To not make assumptions that all people are benefitting from the same privilege that you have. We might be making progress, but it’s not true progress if everyone who is seated at the table looks just like you.
Mental health issues are just as valid as physical illnesses—so why do we have a tendency to pretend they’re NBD? And here’s why community is so important for staying mentally healthy.
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