CW: mentions of suicide
Amidst a national call for police officers to be held accountable for the murder of innocent Black people, police officers shot another unarmed Black man named Jacob Blake on Sunday in Wisconsin. As of August 25, it has been 165 days since police officers killed Breonna Taylor in her own house. Her name and image have made it on to t-shirts, magazine covers, and more, but officials have yet to arrest those responsible.
Being Black in America means feeling like your voice– and your humanity– is always disregarded. Enduring systemic racism each day has a detrimental impact on the mental health of Black Americans.
This means that in the U.S, racism is legitimately a public health crisis.
For example, @saddie.baddies, a mental health resource for women of color, made an Instagram post about vicarious trauma, which occurs when “a person witnesses or is exposed to a traumatic event.”
When police officers killed George Floyd in May, I remember people posting the video everywhere to “spread awareness.” Now, it’s happening again with the shooting of Jacob Blake.
As the @saddie.baddies Instagram post states, however, “when the [black] body is used for shock value it takes away several components….it desensitizes us to think that violent acts towards Black people are normal, or ordinary. They are not.”
Constantly seeing video footage of those with power brutalizing people who look like you has a lasting effect on one’s mental health. Sharing video footage like this does more harm to Black people than good.
Despite the shared impact that experiencing racial injustice has on Black people, mental health remains stigmatized and ignored within the Black community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that only “one in three Black people who need mental health care receive it.”
The stigma placed on mental health in the Black community likely comes from the many barriers Black Americans have to access it.
A professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, Susan White, cites a mistrust of the medical system due to frequent misdiagnoses and exploitation. As I wrote in my August 7th post, “How the Healthcare System Fails Black Women,” I explained the dangers of implicit bias in the medical field. Implicit bias from medical professionals extends to mental health, too.
So often as Black women, people ignore or disrespect our pain and suffering. Speaking up about experiencing issues with our mental health can be difficult because society tells us to be independent and enduring. Our families dealing with institutionalized racism for centuries has led to a belief that showing signs of needing mental health care is a weakness.
This, combined with the familiar “strong Black woman stereotype,” causes Black women to be left behind in the mental health discussion.
@blackgirlboardingschool, an anonymous Instagram page created by a Black teen to educate others about the experience of Black girls in U.S. boarding schools, opened up about her experience with mental health.
“My mental health is on a slippery slope,” she wrote. “As a black woman, there are not as many spaces and people for me to go to talk about it. My options are my black family that doesn’t believe in mental health and a school counselor that says it’s just a teenage girl thing.”
Black families not accepting mental health differences in their children has dangerous outcomes. No child should feel as if they can’t turn to their parents for accurate guidance and advice.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “African American females, grades 9-12, were 70 percent more likely to attempt suicide in 2017, as compared to non-Hispanic white females of the same age.” When I read this statistic, I immediately thought of how necessary it is for parents of Black girls to have conversations that check on mental health.
So what can we do to break the stigma so that more Black people get the help they need?
We need diverse representation in mental health facilities. Being able to talk to someone who shares your ethnic background can help create an immediate bond that leads to a greater understanding. The staff of school counseling offices should reflect the diversity of the student body so that each student feels welcomed and understood when they seek help.
On another note, Susan White of the University of California’s School of Social Work cites the frequent criminalization of Black people with mental health as another source of stigma.
Black Americans make up a large proportion of the incarcerated U.S. population. White states, “If an African American person with a mental illness acts out in violence, they are much more likely to be criminalized than to be given the opportunity to receive mental health care.”
Lastly, to put it simply, Black people need to talk about it. Mental health should not be a taboo topic to talk about in a family setting.
When mental health is treated as something that people shouldn’t open up about, people are left to process negative emotions on their own instead of asking for the help they need. Our generation has the power to make a difference and stop the cycle of mental health going untreated in our friends, relatives, and eventually our children.
photo credits: Illustration by Reyna Noriega (@reynanoriega_) on Instagram.