Do Whites Have a Mental-Health Edge?

During Mental Health Awareness Month, experts weigh in on how stigma hurts the black community.

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Williams concurred, explaining that particularly in the black community, we have become accustomed to coping with severe trauma — such as violence — and then continuing with our lives as if nothing has happened. “Then we wonder why we can’t concentrate at work or school,” she said.

Williams was speaking from firsthand experience. She was one of the most powerful publicists in the country when she had what she described as “a breakdown.” At the time, she was representing some of the biggest celebrities in America: Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis and Anita Baker. She began struggling just to get out of bed each day. Eventually friends coaxed her to a psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed her with clinical depression. Her quality of life improved significantly upon beginning treatment. But her life was truly changed when she went public with her story. While appearing on a panel airing on C-SPAN, she surprised herself and viewers by opening up about her mental-health experience.

She was inundated with letters from others who had been suffering in silence. “People are smiling, but dying inside,” she told The Root. She authored the book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, about her own journey and the black community’s struggle to confront mental-health issues head-on. Since the book’s publication, she has been contacted by thousands of readers, some of them prison inmates who open up to her in ways they haven’t to anyone else. Some tell her that for the first time, they understand that what they failed to address mentally and emotionally years earlier made them explode physically with violence, resulting in their incarceration. This reinforces what Williams has long considered one of the greatest impediments to community healing: diagnosis.

“We haven’t even named our pain,” she said. “We don’t know what it looks like, feels like or sounds like. And it’s everywhere we turn. The violence that we see in our streets every single day is all symptomatic of all of the unresolved pains, wounds, traumas and scars from our childhood.” Williams explained that helping people make the connection between their personal pain and the widespread pain seen throughout the community is why she considers discussing this issue and sharing her own story with as many people as possible not only important, but lifesaving.

In the last few years, other prominent black Americans have gone public with their stories, including Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams and Danielle Belton, the former head writer for T.J. Holmes’ BET talk show, Don’t Sleep. Before coming to prominence with her popular blog the Black Snob, Belton struggled with bipolar disorder. In 2010, she began sharing her story publicly, seeing it in some ways as a responsibility to help others.

“After many, many years of struggle I made a promise to myself that if I reached a point of stability, I would talk about my illness, if only to give others who were like me some hope that if they stick with their treatment and keep trying, they could learn how to cope and live with this disease as well,” she told The Root. “That they wouldn’t have to give up their dreams and desires and wants and give them over to this illness. That they can find a way to live with it and not let it define them.”

Like Terrie Williams, Belton said the stigma in the black community that depression and other mental-health disorders are simply a sign of weakness or something that one can snap out of remains one of the greatest obstacles to more people receiving treatment. In the meantime, Williams worries that more people will continue to suffer unnecessarily.

“It’s the stigma that prevents people from getting help. It’s a deep mark of shame. People are reluctant to talk because they think they are the only one,” Williams said. “By 2020, depression will be [a] leading cause of disability behind heart disease because people get up, go to work, and they cannot function. They are not functioning. That’s why with every breath of my body I’m going to talk about it.”

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.