Discussions of mental health primarily revolve around white people. Specifically, white men. Recent mass shootings have been performed by white men and have brought to news outlets a conversation about the terrorist’s mental state. While these white men may, in fact, suffer from some mental disorder, they are usually the ones who receive support in the form of mental health options compared to the rest of the population. They can use mental instability as an escape for their actions. People of color are rarely granted this escape or support.
To be sure, America’s white population can visit discussions about mental instability regularly, and they generally have access to healthy solutions prior to the development of severe mental problems. Further, doctors believe and trust white patients’ translations of their experiences. They are validated in most cases. This is not true for people of color. And while we realize that mental illness does not have a look, we want to acknowledge that some groups get left out of the conversation completely, invalidating their mental illnesses, ultimately subjecting them to more danger, further disempowering them.
Like many people with mental illness, some black women will slowly turn to self-medication, but this temporary solution is a product of shame shared among communities of color. Black women should feel empowered to take good care of themselves first so that they are able to take care of those that they love, and that starts with a stable mental state. They need the space to start cutting through stigmas, and it is important to find the right resources within their communities that will assist in advocating for themselves even in places of socioeconomic disadvantage and poor treatment from authorities. How can black women navigate their mental health from a position that is constantly being devalued by American society, affecting the way she sees herself? How does it alter her sense of mental security?
Black women are disproportionately affected by mental illness. Holden et. al. explains that black women suffer from depression and PTSD at exceptionally high rates due to their exposure to trauma. Trauma varies from woman to woman and is more severe for economically disadvantaged women, but what makes the case of black women unique, according to Holden et. al. is that mental illnesses like depression are invisible, misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed, or ineptly treated. Only 7.6 percent of black women sought treatment in 2011 compared to the 13.6 percent of the general population. Even more, trauma for black women takes shape in devastatingly tangible ways. According to the New York Times Magazine infant mortality rates are highest among black infants because of the stress and weathering the mother experiences not only during pregnancy but also long before she conceives a child. “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies,” NYTimes Magazine show, highlighting that this difference is “a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.” Systemic racism permanently alters the black woman’s body and her ability to carry her child to term, and while the affects of racism change the state of her mental health, the loss of her child is a kind of trauma that creates irrevocable mental damage, especially if not treated professionally.
George Yancy, in Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, explains that “to be black in America is to be always already known, and white people assume that they know everything about [us].” So we spend much of our time trying to dismantle the knowing, and then spend time trying to recreate a new knowledge about black identity, about blackness, learning in the end, that it doesn’t really matter how much work we put into changing the minds of those who think they know us. The damage is already done. That constant constructing and reconstructing and deconstructing eventually takes a toll on our mental state, and without knowing how far gone we already are because of this multi-consciousness, we’ve become accustomed to the mental instability. It becomes a part of who we are—we are mother, friend, daughter, lover, co-worker, wife, and sister—and we hold the weight of keeping our children, parents, husbands, wives, and siblings in tact while feeling the real pressure of wanting to be who we are despite how the world labels us.
Everyone deserves to have access to ways in managing their own mental illnesses, but systemic racism does not actually allow that possibility for everyone. We must start with acknowledging, educating, and being open to the fact that psychological problems exist for people of color in the same ways that it exists for white people. The stigma that we carry regarding mental illness as women of color hinders us from acknowledging, educating, and opening ourselves up. We must remember that taking these steps is not a matter of weakness, but it, in fact, gives us power.