A few days ago, I told my mom that I had been “feeling a bit down.” She gave me some words of support and I felt better.
But it took me weeks to share that with my mom. And when I did, I played it down so that she wouldn’t know that it was a bit more intense than just “feeling a bit down.” Even though I know she’s nothing but 100 percent supportive of anything I might be going through, I don’t usually confide in her when it comes to mental health.
I wouldn’t think twice about sharing any physical ailments with my mom. So why do I keep things like depression to myself?
In the black community, we are still struggling to instill the goal of good mental health. For many years, talking about depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia just wasn’t done. We didn’t even use the right terminology for mental-health issues. It was often just, “He’s crazy” or “She’s got a screw loose.”
Today, when commercials for antidepressants flood the airwaves and therapy has less of a stigma attached, American culture as a whole has reached a different place in mental-health treatment. So why is it that so many black men and women still see therapy and/or medication as a moral failing?
Part of it is how much our culture is rooted in the church. So many of us were taught that religion and spirituality were the solution to any problem. But though we’d never be expected to simply pray in order to deal with cancer or a broken limb, somehow, praying away mental-health issues has often been believed to be the way to cure them.
Another barrier is our need for privacy. Black folks are used to keeping their problems to themselves, and the idea of putting our business in the street has always been distasteful. So instead of speaking out about our pain, we hold it in and keep our chins up, no matter what we’re going through.
Also, many of us are already distrustful of the medical profession as a whole (and with good reason). Our past is littered with forced sterilization and medical testing and other atrocities that have led many in our communities to forgo many types of medical care, including mental health.
The push, particularly for black women, to be high-achieving superheroes representing their gender and their ethnicity in the best-possible light also keeps us from seeking help. While one would think that people with high levels of education and professional success would be more likely to seek professional treatment for mental health, the opposite is actually true. The American Psychological Association has found that African Americans with higher levels of education are actually less likely to receive mental-health treatment.
How did we get here? And how do we stop this cycle?
The first step to moving forward is looking back. In many ways, earlier generations set the tone for todays’. What can our elders do to help change what our generation has been taught about suffering in silence?
Unfortunately, the idea of suffering in silence has a long history in the black community. In some ways, it could actually be a holdover from the era of slavery—when invisibility was a form of protection. Our ancestors didn’t have the freedom to express their needs, so they learned to remain silent. And it’s all too possible that we’ve continued to pass the message on: Just be quiet. Keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it.
It was definitely passed down to me in my family. In terms of health, the idea of mental illness was never discussed. There was an assumption that as long as you were physically healthy, that was all that mattered. And if you did have mental issues, you certainly wouldn’t speak to a professional about them! Then this stranger might know the intimate details of what was happening in your family, and judgments could be made. I learned early on that mental illness, if addressed at all, was a family secret not to be shared.
As I think about it, I think my generation’s approach to mental health is tied into the many hurdles we’ve had to deal with, from institutional racism and self-hatred to hitting the glass ceiling in our careers. There has been so much we’ve had to overcome, many of us are late to the discussion on mental health and may need more time to understand its importance.
My heart aches for my daughter and others like her, and I wish that she were able to be more open about how she’s feeling. But I also completely understand the reluctance. For over 25 years I worked in a mental institution, and I witnessed firsthand how mentally ill patients were abused on so many levels. They were not (and in many cases are still not) treated with respect. And because of the nature of their illness, many people who suffer with mental-health issues usually cannot advocate for themselves, which in effect renders them voiceless—and which is also a form of suffering.
The micro issue here is the importance of mental health. It can be just as serious as physical health issues and should be treated as such. The macro issue here is that we in the black community have to break with tradition and custom and stop holding things inside. Although it is hard for us to change our ways, it must be done. We have to encourage our families to speak up and not to allow things to bottle up. Family secrets aren’t healthy. I’ve grown up with that ideology, and I know it must change for future generations.
Until daughters like Aliya don't hesitate to confide in moms like me about their mental health, we all have work to do.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at her website. Rita Moore King, mother of three grown folks, is originally from Newark, N.J., and has made East Orange, N.J., her home for the last 40 years. Prior to her recent retirement as an English teacher at East Orange Campus High School, she advised the school’s book club for 12 years. Her goal is to publish her first children's book, A Fake Moon in a Real Sky, an idea inspired by her granddaughter Emmy.