3 Black Students Discuss What It's Really Like To Live With Mental Illness While In School

Three students share what it’s like to manage their mental health while dealing with the demands of academia.

Photo credit:Maya Eaddy, Khaaliq Crowder and Deja Mackey

| April 24 2019,

7:36 pm

Being Black while living with mental illness is an extreme sport.

One month before starting college, I told my mom about my heart palpitations, and how I could be doing anything, then suddenly come undone by a sudden ache in my chest. It felt like my heart completely stops before frantically beating out of control — as if it’s just as startled as I am.

A Black doctor told me it was a heart murmur and instructed I get an EKG test. I now know that a heart murmur can commonly be detected with a simple stethoscope check, but she didn’t want to admit to my mom that something mental was more likely at play. Physical reasoning, she later admitted, was something more palatable for “my kind” of parent. Her bias ultimately stalled my accessibility to healing and learning management skills.

I was diagnosed with panic disorder in September of 2014. In hindsight, I should have realized this. Outside of obvious panic attacks, I have all the textbook symptoms. My hands shake, which can be its own disruption. I once ripped through the little flap of tissue in my mouth that anchors the tongue to the inside, bottom part of the jaw with my toothbrush, when trying to push through an attack. I could barely speak for a week after that. Other times, I get dizzy and my options are often quickly reduced to sitting down or falling over. The most awkward time was while in line at a grocery store – I sat amongst the self-checkout customers with a bag of grapes in my lap. An older woman asked if I knew the floor was dirty; I assured her that I did.

My two least favorite symptoms only manifest during times of great stress, like when I was starting college, moving away from home, a break-up and so on. The dizziness turns into nausea, and thoughts become so overwhelming that my body physically attempts to reject them. Vomiting is common. I lost 15 pounds in one month because I couldn’t wrap my head around the end of a nearly four-year relationship.

My nights can be restless — not because of tossing and turning, but because I have the ultimate privilege of having panic attacks in my sleep. I don’t know I’ve had one until my skin chills, and I wake to find my clothes damp with sweat. I change pajamas and hope I don’t ruin a second pair in the same night.

I’ve gone to therapy once a week since my freshman year of college. When I went for my first appointment, I was told the wait to be matched with a counselor would take two hours, and the receptionist asked if I wanted to stay. To this day, I think she was lying, hoping I’d opt to leave so the understaffed health center could weed out those who weren’t as committed to seeking help. I chose to wait, and she called my name less than 10 minutes later. After two years, I was begrudgingly shuffled into group therapy so the staff could accommodate more students.

Instances like this are common at colleges, where many students spend their entire academic career unaware of their school having free therapy and accommodations available, or the demand is too high for many to receive them.

Finding help can be terrifying, and not knowing where to start leads many to give up their search altogether. Combine that with the hardships of where race and mental health struggles to intersect, and the statistics speak for themselves. Black girls and boys are committing suicide at increasing rates; thousands have been diagnosed with mental health disorders, and yet open conversations remain un-had.

Now, Blavity has encouraged Black college and grad students to share what it is like to have a mental illness while in school, opening the conversation and hoping you jump in.

1. Maya Eaddy, Undergrad Student at Spelman College

Diagnosis: Major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder

Courtesy of Maya Eaddy

Blavity: Can you describe what led up to your diagnosis, and what first prompted you to see a doctor?

Maya Eaddy: I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder when I was about 15 or 16. Prior to being diagnosed, I went through a series of panic attacks that caused me to miss several weeks of school. My mother and I had no knowledge about anxiety or panic attacks, so she took me to see our family pediatrician, who then referred me to a psychiatrist.

My first time walking into the psychiatrist’s office, I kept thinking, “I don’t belong here. There’s nothing wrong with me.” I felt even worse when they prescribed me with antidepressants. It almost felt like I wasn’t “normal” anymore and believed I had to use pills to be normal. I didn’t understand anything about mental health until I started seeing my therapist and she helped me realize that taking antidepressants and going through anxiety or depression isn’t anything to be ashamed of.

Blavity: What is the best advice your therapist gave you?

Eaddy: The best advice I’ve been given by a therapist was to avoid using words like “should” or “supposed to” when talking about whatever issues I may have. My therapist noticed that I was always saying things like “I should be over this by now” or “I’m supposed to be this strong woman instead of crying all the time” and she pointed out that by using that language, I’m placing these difficult expectations on myself and feeling down when I can’t live up to those expectations. It also helped me to validate my feelings instead of trying to suppress them. I used to be in denial about my mental health, especially while it was declining, but being transparent and open about it makes things easier to cope with.

Blavity: Does the race of your therapist make a difference?

Eaddy: The race of my therapist makes a difference. I think it goes deeper than just being a preference. While I’m sure that a therapist of a different race could still aid me in my healing process, I would always worry that there’s some level of implicit bias there.

Blavity: What does it mean to you to be Black with a mental health disorder and what do people need to understand about that intersection?

Eaddy: Being Black with a mental disorder leads people to assume that I act like the stereotypical angry Black woman and I want people to understand the harm that can do. Black women with mental disorders need to have their feelings validated.

2. Khaaliq Crowder, Undergrad Student at the University of New Hampshire

Diagnosis: ADHD, depression and generalized anxiety

Courtesy of Khaaliq Crowder

Blavity: Can you describe what led up to your diagnosis, and what first prompted you to see a doctor?

Khaaliq Crowder: I’ve had counseling since I was a child.

Blavity: Does the race of your therapist make a difference?

Crowder: During college, I eventually went off campus to see a therapist, because my school's counseling center only has white therapists, and they can't relate to the problems I have as a Black person. They aren't culturally competent. I found myself having to educate them [on cultural differences]. Race intertwines with daily stress we suffer from when dealing with friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances. Seeing a Black therapist allows me to be comfortable and not feel like I have to speak with trepidation.

Blavity: What does it mean to you to be Black with a mental health disorder, and what do people need to understand about that intersection?

Crowder: To be Black with a mental health disorder means feeling trapped by society; to be invisible. I find myself having “smiling depression” — where I put on a brave face and act like everything is all right, when it isn’t. What Black people have been through — from slavery to oppression, unrealistic stereotypes and poor economic positions put on us — has made us feel like we can weather any storm that comes out way, and many don’t realize it’s OK to get help.

Blavity: Is there a stigma about mental health issues on your campus or do people discuss it openly?

Crowder:

3. Deja Mackey, Graduate Student at DePaul University

Diagnosis: Obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder

Courtesy of Deja Mackey

Blavity: Can you describe what led up to your diagnosis, and what first prompted you to see a doctor?

Deja Mackey: I chose to be committed into a psychiatric and behavioral hospital during the spring of 2012, after a fight with my mother and her abusive live-in partner turned physical. I called the police because I didn’t know what to do, and I needed help. My stay lasted 10 days. During that time, I was given a psychiatrist, a therapist and a medical doctor, who each agreed on my diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety disorder and severe depression. I had always recognized my symptoms of OCD, but I never knew it was an issue. I thought it was my “normal.” Things started making sense after that.

Blavity: How has school affected your health, particularly in terms of your ability to tackle your symptoms?

Mackey: I almost dropped out of college during my first semester of freshman year, because my quality of life was so poor. Mizzou [University of Missouri] had a counseling center, but the process of getting a therapist you’d be working with longterm was — long. There was a one-to-two hour process for your entrance appointment. I went through this twice during my undergraduate career. Each time, it was exhausting — to know you were telling your story to someone you’d never see again, and that you’d have to tell it again to someone else before you even got started with real treatment.

Blavity: What surprised you about going to therapy?

Mackey: Being truly heard and feeling seen was mind-blowing. No one had truly affirmed my experiences, and backed me up with medical reasoning as to why certain things were happening. I’ve spent so much time being hard on myself and having other people treat me like I’m crazy. My experience so far with therapy is refreshing, to say the least.

Blavity: What does it mean to you to be Black with a mental health disorder and what do people need to understand about that intersection?

Mackey: I think there are several intersections folks need to pay attention to. Of course, what we’ve been hearing a lot with young folks recently [is that] Black folks deserve room to experience mental health disorders, and not be passed off as dramatic or that it’s a “white people thing.” But I think people also need to normalize the concept of giving grace to Black folks with mental disorders who are in higher academia. That’s easily been the hardest part about being Black and neurodivergent for me; there’s no grace given to folks like me.

Blavity: How did you find a therapist, and how do you find affordable therapy?

Mackey: Thankfully, I was given access to health insurance in the form of public aid. The insurance company I chose sent me a thick book with thousands of pages that listed every single service provider in network with Meridian Healthcare. I went through a week-long process of highlighting female therapists, psychologists and clinical mental health providers. When I began to make calls, I realized that a large majority of providers were not taking clients, no longer worked at that facility or had retired. I will never forget the heaviness that fell on my shoulders after a dozen of those calls. I cried because I felt like I had hit that wall we always talk about, in terms of access to mental health services. My current therapist was actually recommended to me by a service provider who couldn’t take my insurance but knew of someone who did. Fortunately, I don’t have to come out of pocket for any of my therapy services. If I had to, I wouldn’t be able to continue with my treatment plan.

If you’re comfortable, please comment with your own mental health story below — and know that you are not alone.

Now, check these out:

Black Folks And Mental Health: How To Stop Suffering In Silence

What Virtual Therapy Means For Mental Health In The Black Community

Suicide Rates For Black Children Have Increased By 71 Percent In 10 Years