“Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”- Stephi Wagner
My mother was deceased when I found out she had a serious mental illness. She never told me and no one else told me. But even though no one told me, I was 29 years old when she passed away and I had a Master’s Degree in Social Work. How could I have missed that? I play back different scenarios and situations in my head and wonder how differently I might have responded to certain things had I known. I wonder if maybe there was something more that I could have done. People will say I shouldn’t think like that, but how can you not? I know that the stigma associated with mental illness may have been a big reason why she didn’t tell me. I also understand how difficult it can be to talk about mental illness, especially in the black community. Even as a licensed professional with years of education and experience, it’s still challenging for me sometimes. Regardless of this, one thing is certain, we can not afford to continue sweeping things like this under the rug and thinking that it will be okay. It won’t.
The stigma and ignorance associated with mental illness and addiction are deadly. It makes it possible to judge a person based on the symptoms of their illness instead of addressing the actual illness. It makes it possible for people to joke about mental illness and addiction like it’s funny, instead of urging people to get help. It makes it so much easier to gossip and make light of a situation, rather than having to sit with the gravity and weight of just how traumatic and scary it is to battle with addiction and mental illness. It makes it possible to throw people in prison and label them as criminals instead of getting them the rehabilitation that they really need. It makes it easier to label someone a “crackhead”, as opposed to seeing them as an actual person battling an addiction. It makes it ok to promise to pray for someone and walk away feeling like you’ve done enough, rather than addressing it like you would other illnesses, like cancer or diabetes. Prayer is great, but it’s okay to have God and a therapist because treating mental illness and addiction requires professional help just like treating cancer and diabetes do.
The irony is that the black community is very familiar with mental illness and addiction and we are well aware of the damage that it causes. When you think about the generational trauma that has been passed down throughout the years –from centuries of cruel and inhumane treatment during slavery and the Jim Crow Era, to the harsh injustices of the Civil Rights Era, to the crack epidemic, extreme poverty, violence, police brutality, and crime ridden neighborhoods, it’s not hard to imagine why mental illness and addiction are so prevalent in our communities. We’ve seen over and over again the effect that addiction and mental illness have on people’s lives. No one has to tell us that, we get that. We rap about it in our songs to emphasize the struggle. We base all the hood T.V. shows and movies around it. It’s the typical hood child’s Cinderella story– their mom was addicted to crack and/or their dad was in jail for selling crack. So yes, we get it! But somehow, even with all this we still regularly choose to either not talk about it, turn a blind eye to it, or joke and make fun of it. We normalize this like this is the way things are supposed to be and that needs to change.
Working as a Medical Social Worker, I have watched entirely too many people die from drug overdose, completed suicide, or some avoidable disease that was brought on by heavy alcohol, tobacco, or drug use. These people are almost always surrounded by devastated family members who are now left behind to grieve and question what they could have done differently. It’s incredibly sad to watch and it’s definitely no laughing matter.
It seems that every few weeks we hear about someone famous that has died from a drug overdose or suicide. This of course creates a conversation on the national stage about what needs to be done to fix these problems. But these conversations need to occur in our own living rooms as well. These conversations need to be had with the friend that we see ‘slipping’. With our brother that we notice has started to act out of character. With our sister that we’ve noticed has been drinking a lot lately and is always angry or depressed. With our aging parent that has started to withdraw and close themselves off from others. Instead of gossiping about them, laughing at them, or judging them, let’s try helping them. Because even though the conversation may be hard to have, it’s necessary and it could quite possibly save their life. I know that even with doing all of this sometimes it still may not be enough, but often times it’s just what a person needs to hear to make the first steps to getting better.
Unfortunately, there is also a huge issue with a lack of resources when it comes to getting treatment for mental illness and addictions. Specifically, if you are uninsured or underinsured, the resources that you need to get adequate mental health treatment can be extremely limited, and sometimes even nonexistent. So not only are poor people and people of color more likely to experience circumstances that help bring about addictions and mental health issues, they are also the least likely to have access to treatment. In spite of this, I am so excited to see more and more black mental health professionals directing their energy and expertise specifically to underserved communities and communities of color to help deal with this issue. Representation is also extremely important and when black people seek treatment I think that they should at least have the option of having someone who looks like them and who can relate to them.
Websites such as Therapy For Black Girls (www.therapyforblackgirls.com) and Therapy For Black Men (www.therapyforblackmen.org) offer amazing resources for people seeking help. These programs provide a wealth of helpful information and they also link people to therapists in their area who can assist them further. Even if you don’t feel the need for such programs right now, you may need this information in the future or you may have a loved one right now who desperately needs this information. Also, be sure to check out your state’s Department of Health website for additional resources in your area.
Please note I am not affiliated with Therapy For Black Girls or Therapy For Black Men in any way. Also, I did not write this post because I have all the answers. I most certainly do not. I wrote this post instead to raise awareness to these issues and to continue the conversation, because what I do know is that we can not keep sweeping these issues under the rug and avoiding them in hopes that they will just disappear on their own. They won’t…