SAINT-FORT: On depression, anxiety as myths in black community
Opinions Column: Charged Up
There are countless unfortunate stigmas that surround mental health in the black community. For example, “there’s no such thing as depression. If you’re sad get over it.” As a result, there are so many black individuals and families that do not deal with their emotions. Instead, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression are repressed and made to seem insignificant. Forces that operate within the black community make it feel as though people are expected to “get over it” or to be tough, and that stigma only worsens when you can trace your roots back to the Caribbean. As a child of Haitian immigrants, my parents never mentioned anxiety, stress or depression unless they were calling them “foolish, play creations.” So simply admitting to myself that I had anxiety was monumental. I didn't want to believe it and I didn't want anyone around me to know.
As I’ve mentioned in other columns, I transferred to Rutgers as a sophomore. Yet the school I attended before was my dream school. I set my sights on that university in September of my sophomore year of high school, and from that point on, I did everything within my power to make sure that I would get in — and I did. But due to a multitude of unforeseen circumstances, I had to leave. My dream was taken away from me. However, being the person that I am, I pressed on in spite of my emotions, and never really dealt with the pain of what happened.
Growing up with mental health as a stigmatized phenomenon, it seemed silly for me to say that having to transfer schools caused me pain or strife — especially given that so many people don’t get to attend college, let alone a school of their choosing. I acted like I wasn’t hurt. I came to Rutgers and carried on with business as usual. Yet mid-semester in spring of 2015, I broke. My schedule was unbearable — waking up at 7 a.m., going to the gym, then the library, class and then work until 10 p.m. was what most of my days looked like. I burnt myself out, and two years later I had no choice but to deal with all of the emotions that I’d suppressed for so long.
Months after realizing I had anxiety, I sought help through professional channels and Counseling, Alcohol and other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), but for me, that ended up being more work than it was worth. So drawing upon old adages in the black community, I sought to help myself and disclosed to a few friends what was going on. For me, just talking to someone who would listen was enough. But that isn’t the case for so many people.
According to the American Psychological Association, when it comes to their mental health, black people, especially those who have attained higher levels of education, are less likely to seek treatment or therapy. Part of this is due to the fact that practitioners and therapists are not only ill-equipped, but lack the cultural sensitivity necessary to handle the issues that black youth and young adults face. Insert the racial empathy gap. This is the idea that white people are often unable to feel the pain that black, or other people of color feel. Contextualized hypothetically, lets say I go to see a white therapist and tell them of the stress and anxiety that transferring and keeping a busy schedule caused me. This person might be more likely to tell me that my emotions are not that big of a deal, when they would offer a more sympathetic explanation to a white counterpart.
At this point, the racial stigmas associated with mental health come full circle. My community is telling me that my emotions are insignificant. But I defy them and work up the courage to seek treatment, only to be told by a professional that my emotions are indeed insignificant, all because they lack the cultural sensitivity necessary to empathize with me.
Fortunately the perpetual cycle of mental health treatment is beginning to shift, albeit at a snail's pace. The Black Lives Matter movement, along with many other current social movements are working to transform the stigmas associated with mental health. They promote the idea of “self-care” as critical and essential to the success of any movement. Though there are fewer reports of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police — even though this is still happening — reading racist Facebook comments, watching inflammatory videos and interacting with intolerant co-workers and peers take a toll on the human psyche, especially if you’re a person of color. These movements tell their supporters and allies to seek repose in any way possible — read a book, exercise, seek romantic relationships, go out for drinks or do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better.
Mental health should always come first, regardless of race, class or gender. To quote Ms. Lauryn Hill, “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”
Yvanna Saint-Fort is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies with a minor in public policy. Her column, "Charged Up," runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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