July 30, 2014 — Blog Post
But I’m Not Okay: Dealing with Mental Illness as a Young, Black Woman
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this performance art piece that completely blew my mind away. This artist stood stoically under a bright, white light with a large bucket of ice water directly in front of them, while a slow, chilling song repeated “You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger.” The song’s tinny drone was instantly followed by the artist completely submerging their head in ice water for what seemed like forever. As they slowly rose from the freezing ice water, they looked up to the bright light as if asking for guidance. With a couple of deep breaths, the artist submerged their head again for longer that time. I sat there in awe. This artist, whom I’ve never met, perfectly translated into art how I felt when I told my family I was suffering with depression.
“You’ll be okay.”
I received this aloof response after I finally gathered up the courage to acknowledge my depression I had for more than three years to my family. I don’t know what I was expecting from them, but it definitely wasn’t that. A blend of frustration, helplessness and shame washed over me as my mental illness was being promptly ignored. “But I’m not okay,” echoed in my mind.
Growing up, my knowledge about mental health was limited to only the serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or what was over-dramatically acted on TV. My conservative family’s vaguely spoken belief of “we don’t have those kinds of problems” or “girl, you’ll get over it” played into the African American community’s stigmatization of mental health. It never occurred to me that other people of color ever had mental illnesses as well. I would eventually come to realize this group of people was bigger than I imagined, but completely invisible.
As a teenager, I didn’t know who to talk to or where to go for help with how I was feeling. I remained in helpless silence and isolation until a couple of years ago when I started attending college, and became more involved in the Chicago community. I volunteered at Camp Butterfly, which was a Chicago-based non-profit organization that provided young girls of African descent a safe space for emotional healing. There, I was finally able to openly discuss my experience of mental illness, and learn right along with the girls that it’s okay to ask for help. Through the organization, I found a slew of helpful online resources and organizations such as the National Alliance of Mental Illness that promoted mental wellness focusing on cultural sensitivity.
As July celebrates National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to increase awareness about the importance of mental health in minority communities. According to The National Alliance of Mental Illness, African Americans are less likely to receive diagnoses and treatments for their mental illnesses as compared to Caucasian Americans. The creation of more programs, similar to Camp Butterfly, can provide safe spaces for people of all ages to acknowledge and learn about their mental illness. I think this would effectively increase health literacy in these communities, and can encourage more people to talk to health professionals. Also, more visible campaigns promoting mental health can create opportunities for open dialogue and acceptance.
Taking a more active approach to promote health literacy will positively impact those suffering with mental illness in silence, just as I was. I want other people of color to know what I wish I knew some time ago: Your feelings are valid, asking for help does not make you weak or defective, and it will get better!