Silence Is Deadly: Mental Health and the Black Community

The first lady of New York City shares two personal stories—about a father’s shame and a daughter’s pain—to illustrate the overwhelming need to talk about mental health in the African-American community.

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Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray, son Dante de Blasio and daughter Chiara de Blasio after voting at a public library branch on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2013, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My father was a quiet man, but not because he didn’t have stories to tell. 

Robert McCray was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1924. He never knew his father. His formal education ended after the 12th grade, but he earned advanced degrees in what he called “the school of hard knocks.” After serving his country in World War II, he returned to a society where a black man could rise only so high. Through decades of hard work and sacrifice, he and my mother managed to beat the odds and create a stable and loving home for my siblings and me. But despite all that, there was still little he could do when I came home from school distraught because my white classmates had shunned me.

My father’s story may sound familiar to many of you. Poverty, instability and discrimination are the shaky foundations of too many lives in our community, both past and present. They are also leading risk factors for depression, the disease lurking behind my father’s quiet.

Dad would not have called it depression. He never said a word about the pain he was experiencing, and he wasn’t alone. Back then, people didn’t talk about mental-health challenges—especially black folks. We hid our pain. We disguised it. We toughed it out. We kept our upper lips stiff as broomsticks. With the odds already stacked against us, we couldn’t afford to show what was considered weakness or lack of willpower.

That’s what we thought, anyway. But in truth, silence ultimately costs far more than speaking up. Today, African Americans are 20 percent more likely than their white counterparts to report experiencing serious psychological distress. And yet we are 40 percent less likely to have received mental-health treatment or counseling in the past year.

Here’s what that means in real life: Millions of African Americans suffer from a mental-health condition and do not get the treatment they need to live a full and productive life.

We can do better. And there is no time to waste. Getting our loved ones to treatment and getting them there early can improve and transform their lives. 

A first step is to work with our leaders in government to expand the network of evidence-based practices like peer counseling and support groups. We need more health care workers who understand our culture and can help us access services where we live. We need to raise awareness so that people realize that anxiety, depression, substance-use disorders and other mental-health ailments are common. And they are all treatable.

Here in New York City, with the leadership of my husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, we are starting to put those solutions into place. I recently had the privilege of announcing that the city will invest $78.3 million annually to provide counselors and treatment to the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including children, families living in homeless shelters and the survivors of domestic violence. Our goal is to create a truly inclusive mental-health system that can serve as a model. This investment is just the first step.

We also need to make a communitywide commitment to share our personal stories and encourage others to do the same. Speaking our pain aloud is often the first step toward healing. It is also the only way to end the deadly myth that mental-health challenges are rare and shameful.

If all of this sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, I have one more story for you, about another person I love dearly.

A few years ago, our daughter, Chiara, summoned the courage to tell Bill and me that she was suffering from anxiety, depression and addiction. I felt everything you’d expect a mother to feel: love, sadness, fear and a great deal of uncertainty. But one thing I did not feel was hopeless. I knew that science had made great gains and that services had gotten better since my father’s time. If our daughter was brave enough to ask for help, Bill and I were going to help her find it—and we did. I am proud to report that Chiara is now kicking butt at recovery and sharing her own story with other young people. 

As I said, my father didn’t talk a lot, but one of his favorite sayings was, “Take care of your body. If you have your health, you have everything.” He was so right about that. But I would add that there is no health without mental health. More than anything, I wish he had lived in a world where people understood the value of taking care of mind and body. Please, continue this conversation with your own friends and family. When it comes to mental health, our community simply cannot afford to keep quiet any longer.

Chirlane McCray is the first lady of New York City. A writer and advocate all her life, she has made advocating for high-quality, accessible mental-health services for all New Yorkers her priority as first lady. Follow her on Twitter.