Without depression what would white people do for a personality — Jake Weisman (@weismanjake) March 13, 2015
I tried to tell myself it was just a joke, but it kept rubbing me the wrong way. A joke like this further enforces the idea that mental illness is something only white people can struggle with. And as a black woman who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety (and who also has a degree in psychology) I can tell you this stereotype is far from true.
Mental illness carries a large stigma in general. Social ideas about what is normal or not are very strong, and anyone going against that norm can be ostracized. This same principle can be applied to being black. We have countless stereotypes and perceptions of our race to deal with and fight against already, so it’s understandable that we may want to keep quiet about our own issues with mental health. Who needs the additional burden?
Strength and perseverance are highly admirable values in the black community, so when following that logic it may seem reasonable to just swallow your pain. Our ancestors suffered in brutal ways and they didn’t go to therapy, so our generation should be able to suck it up, right? Maybe other black people see it as a waste of resources to pay just to go talk to someone or get medications. It’s also understandable that member's of our community don’t trust the healthcare field, as it has been misguided and racist in the past (the Tuskagee Syphilis study is a popular example and quite infuriating to read about). Some of this is discussed in this video called “Black Folks Don’t…” a series about stereotypes of things black people "don't do." I would recommend checking out more episodes, but this one about therapy seemed super appropriate.
Regardless of the countless reasons that can be given to deny the presence of mental issues in the black community, they're still there. I know people of any race who think something like depression can be solved by simply forcing yourself to be happy. Never mind that scientifically it has to do with an imbalance of the chemicals in your brain, just be like everyone else. For many people with mental illness, this faux solution won't work. They shouldn’t be further shamed and isolated for wanting to seek help.
Why shouldn’t we get this privilege that whites do? Why can they shoot up schools and the media highlights their mental health struggles, saying they were "just in pain" and "no one saw it until it was too late?" Instead of going along with the stigma of mental illness, we should be saying, “Hey, we go through this too. We are humans just like everyone else.”
It would be helpful if we stopped looking at mental illness as weakness. I have a friend who was hospitalized in her teen years for depression and self-harm. Since then, she has graduated from college, is attending grad school, and continues to follow a path she set for herself long ago to become a forensic psychologist. I’m watching her make her dreams come true all on her own. I would never describe her as weak. A mere label of depression doesn’t have to define you completely.
I’m not saying all black people should start going to therapy. There are real obstacles like money and time that can prevent that. But when your friend comes to you saying she feels sad, maybe even suicidal, you shouldn’t write her off. Black people have every reason and right to suffer from mental issues. Constantly facing racism and micro aggressions, whether it’s against us or friends and family that we love, is hard to do all the time. It builds stress. It can affect our self-esteem. It’s a natural response to living outside the scope of the typical perfect American life.
In the long haul, being more open and honest about these emotions will make mental health a more normal topic, so that getting help won't be looked down upon. This will further strengthen our deserving community.