Being mentally ill while black is an extreme sport. From our well meaning grandmothers who don’t really get it, to our friends that can’t seem to understand that you are just not feeling up to it. The way we treat mental health in our homes, our communities, and our workplaces is with a lack of understanding, carelessness and a disdain that has our peers hiding their brokenness behind Instagram filters.
For many black people, we have been taught for much of our lives to endure because re tlameha ho “tsoara thipa ka bohaleng,” and that means grinning and bearing things that are quite frankly unbearable. We romanticise “enduring” in black culture and in the case of mental health this means lying, daily. This is being unable to get out of bed in the morning because the walls are closing in and your mom dismissing it or telling you to stop with the mood swings, or it is the day I told my grandmother about my anxiety and she asked me to simply stop being anxious.
This “suppression of emotions” often leads to broken people in society masquerading as whole and healthy. This also speaks to a general understanding when growing up black that we do not have time to feel depressed or that anything can be fixed with determination and prayer. This contextualises mental illness as weakness (“you need to get up and get on with it”) and therefore reinforces it being seen as taboo. For example, toxic masculinity is one social ill that I feel is, in some instances, a culmination of numerous events of anxiety and suppression experienced by men throughout their lives. Because we teach our boys that vulnerability is something we leave for the women.
These undiagnosed traumas and the complete lack of support means that as a mentally ill individual, you will often struggle to recognise the signs and symptoms of your condition or dismiss your depression or anxiety as moodiness they can simply snap out of. This is problematic because it assumes that your feelings are necessarily predicated on a particular event and are therefore within your control, which is not necessarily the case. While some things or events can be triggers, it is overly simplistic to view mental health issues as based on self-control.
It is issues such as those that make it difficult to be frank and open about your problems. We fear the stigma, the embarrassment and the pity of being looked at as different or “other.” Very often this can feel like society has made an indictment on you which is why many people simply suffer in silence.
This can make black communities appear to be harsh and ill-equipped to deal with the sensitivities of mental health but this is not the case. Our mothers do not dismiss our pain because they are cruel, it is because they do not understand mental health and can often not differentiate between a tantrum and a cry for help. The fact is that illness in the black community is seen as solely physical, anything else has simply been beyond comprehension (outside of allegations of “witchcraft” and “the calling”).
I often wonder however, how thin the line is between a lack of education and burying your head in the sand, because the truth is that living with mental health issues is hard and the black experience is hard as well. It is feasible to me that our parents are often afraid to accept that there is yet another millstone around our necks making it harder to get out of bed and take what we deserve. Further, because of the stigma of issues such as witchcraft, families and communities would rather pretend it isn’t happening than accept the scorn of their communities.
My cousin’s best friend committed suicide. She died. And that was not because she was not loved or protected but because there are so few spaces to be heard and to cry yourself whole.
My varsity crush committed suicide. He died. A friend wrote about him on Instagram saying, “I wish I could have done more too keep you safe.”
I don’t want to feel that way, as a society we should strive to never feel that way, because we should be doing everything to keep them safe. There is no quick fix solution, but what is necessary is a shift in mindset – not just for our families and friends but also for ourselves.
There is a strength to vulnerability and this means swallowing the hard pill of fear and opening up as much as we can to the people that care about us. Even if it is just to give the next person the strength to examine their own mental health and maybe simply feel a little less alone. Perhaps that starts with a dialogue, with telling our stories, asking questions and interrogating our surroundings.
If you need help organisations such as @MphoFoundation and @MentalWealthZA can help connect you to mental health professionals or just be a safe place to connect with people who understand the battle for wellness.
*This post was first published on http://www.power987.co.za