When I told my mother I wanted to quit my job on Capitol Hill to write full time, she was apprehensive. I’d been at my job for three years and I loved my boss, the people I worked with, and the work that I did. I even saw a clear path for upward mobility in my career there, and had devised a plan for it the moment I walked through the heavy wooden doors of the Rayburn Office Building. But then I began writing again, and my first love quickly turned from a pastime to a side hustle. Then it started to consume my daily life, forcing me to ask myself some hard questions. In the months before I left I'd sit at my desk contending with the thought that perhaps the job was more of a marker for where I thought I should be rather than my true purpose. Finally I got to a place where I came in and did my work, but otherwise felt like dead weight. And that's when I decided to go.
My choice to leave was made even harder by the fact that I knew my feelings could be tricky sometimes. When I was 15, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and being impulsive is one of its most definitive traits. The diagnosis had come at a time when I was performing locally as a hip-hop artist, totally ignoring my mental health and getting into a lot of trouble. I had a baby at 21 years old and dropped out of college. I married his father, but we separated soon after. I still wrote music and worked odd jobs, but I felt like nothing had turned out the way I’d planned and it was truly depressing. So I withdrew from my family and friends and stopped making any big plans. In fact, there were some points during that time when I battled bouts of indecisiveness so crippling that I felt my best recourse was to stand still. Luckily, even though my husband and I were living separately at the time, his parents offered to help with my son and encouraged me to go back to school and finish my undergraduate career.
So I did just that.
It was the first goal I’d stuck with and accomplished in a long time. Though issues that stemmed from my disorder threatened to derail the last two years of my studies, I worked hard and graduated with an English degree. Right before I graduated, one of my professors encouraged me to apply for a congressional internship, and a few months later I was an official part of a congresswoman’s staff. It was only part-time, but it was salaried, and I didn't mind either way because I was happy to get my foot in the door.
Then I did everything I could to kick butt in that office. In such a small press shop, there was a lot of work to do with her social media, but I did it. Our office won two awards for social media engagement while I was there, and the changes I suggested for her website are still in place today. Another bonus was that the women I worked with were strong, capable, and drama-free. I learned so much from that office about writing and editing that after awhile I decided to start writing again. I had written for my college paper and won awards for some of my short stories, so I thought it'd be a good hobby for me. So I dove back into my old blog and got a few articles published, but tried to quell any desire to write full-time.
My reason for this was simple — despite reading stories about other women who’d managed to launch successful writing careers while holding down a day job, I told myself that I wasn’t like them. Having bipolar disorder had kept me on an emotional balance beam for most of my life, and I wasn’t ready to fall off of it again. Those thoughts were inwardly devastating for me, but I accepted them as my truth for a long time. Even after I took advantage of the great healthcare I got through my job and went to talk therapy, I was hesitant to make any drastic changes in my life. Surprisingly, what snapped me out of that mode was the realization that I was inadvertently doing something extremely selfish and potentially sabotaging my own growth.
Really, sitting at that desk even though I’d lost all passion for the job months before was one of the most selfish things I've ever done. I watched desperate interns who would’ve given their left kidney to work in that office bust their butts the way I did when I first came to work, and I knew they were doing it because it was their dream to be there. It just wasn’t my dream anymore.
I knew it had gotten bad when I began to view staying at my job the same way I view holding onto someone with whom I have no real plans on staying with long-term. Once I stopped being invested in the work I was doing, I knew that it wasn't right for me stay in that position. So, I stopped being a placeholder in that office and made room for the next person who’d give it their all.
I left on good terms, too. One of my favorite coworkers made cake, I received Hallmark cards scribbled with warm goodbyes and a kind send-off that makes me smile whenever I think back on it. But now I’m settling into my new reality, and I feel complete. I kept a side-gig putting together proposals for a government contracting firm, and I'm able to do that from home. The income from that enabled me to start my own company, and ultimately, my goal is to work solely for myself and travel the world. Even my personal relationships are better since I stuck with my counseling.
Although I don’t know what my life’s going to look like a year from now, I can at least say that this fresh start — and every fresh start I’ve ever given myself — has brought me nothing but growth. I’ve even learned that stumbling along the way is not necessarily a result of my disorder, but it is a result of me being human. Today I see that I was never meant to be a placeholder in anything I do, and I really don't think that should be anyone's goal. There's always someone who's hungry enough to fill your shoes, so slay or get out of the way.
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I'm no historian. But I connect beyond a doubt with the artist spirit. The artist spirit is the one that rose despite the darkness of its environment. Or the crushing pressure that life puts on us. The artist spirit manages to take all the spicy seasonings of pain and create beauty. I didn’t work in a brothel to survive. I wasn’t antagonized by racism my whole natural life. I wasn’t plagued with drug addiction, like Billie. But I’ll tell you where I think Billie and I intersect: I found my soul voice in pain. The source of my “pain story” might differ from Billie’s, but we have that song in common, where singing unleashed our mourning and made our pain into power – I think we both know this feeling.
My own pain grew out of a horrid relationship which included unthinkable physical and mental abuse. Oh, my blessing is also my curse. I want to heal every pain in the world and be a force of support for those in need. This humanitarian gift becomes a liability if it's the motivation behind an intimate relationship. In my case, I loved a person in a great state of pain who was incapable of loving themself, who was full of anger, and who then turned this hatred into violence against me. Being in a relationship with someone who had psychotic tendencies made it impossible to be healthy.
I also simultaneously mourned for the drug addiction of a close family member — it broke my heart everyday. I also struggled to raise myself out of my economic poverty and found myself temporarily homeless. I once had a nervous breakdown from all the stress, and physically melted to the floor into a puddle of hysterical laughter — It seemed the tears no longer came and my body didn’t know what was left to do, then a chord snapped, I fell and an impossible laughter belted through me.
Some of this hurtful history is a blur, some of it I remember crystal clear. I DO know that through it all I sang. I sang and I sang. It wasn’t the shows that made me a soul-singer, it was the fact that I discovered singing soothed my own soul. I started humming instead of weeping. My voice was my own soul crying out into the world.
From that point forward, my voice always had an urgency inside of it and a connectedness to pain. It also has an empathy for other people’s pain. My voice has hurt and disappointment and anger inside of it. And it combined with the sweetest tones and melodies to reflect the irony of being alive: We survived. We made it to that microphone. We lived to tell about it “tonight." The microphone was our time to speak our power.
I do not sound like Billie Holiday. My writing is not in the genre of Jazz. But my spirit and Billie’s spirit, we meet. Billie left us too soon. The trials of life drowned her. I hope that my own voice carries the torch. In addition to the pain, I sing of great hope. I sing to the Billies that are to come; You ARE somebody. Your story is amazing and worthy to be told. You are not alone. You are loved. Don’t give up. There is light after the dark – I’ve seen it.
Photography by Diana Ragland.
Makeup, Hair and Shoot Production by Heidi Giselle.
From the author, about this photoshoot:
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. I am a survivor of a violent relationship. Since leaving behind my painful past, I’ve gone on to be an advocate for social change and human rights, using my voice and songs as a service to others. I’m currently on the executive board of CONNECTnyc.org, a nonprofit that provides resources and counseling for families overcoming domestic violence. This year I released “Dance Revolution,” a single produced byDJ Spinna, in support of the One Billion Rising campaign to end gender-based violence.
Maya Azucena, a multi-award winning recording artist and magnetically inspirational woman, is known for making music that uplifts the soul. Maya’s work has been featured in O Magazine, Washington Post, Billboard and countless other publications. She’s starred in MTV's Madeand earned a Grammy Award -certificate for contributing her 4-octave range and soul-stylingsto a song with Stephen Marley. Within the last year, she’s toured to Haiti, South Africa, India and Russia. She also joined the Essence Fest lineup in New Orleans with Oprah Winfrey, Maxwell & Beyonce. Inspired Artist Movement's "2016 Inspiring Artist of the Year," Maya considers herself an "advocate for art as power" and uses her songs to empower those in need. www.MayaAzucena.com
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When it comes to black women and mental health, acknowledgment is key. However, given the severe history of our race and gender in the United States, conquering the stigmas can become burdensome at best. One thing is for certain: Black women are sublime creatures of God. We are fully capable of doing it all at no less than 100 percent. That said, even the superhero must count on their sidekick for support.
Statistics shouldn’t lie, although they tend to have a crafty way of masking the entire truth.
Long after the days of slavery, the black American narrative continues to lack accurate representation, from textbooks to mass media. Reality TV producers thrive on exploiting black women and our ‘drama’ for the sake of entertainment. As a result, we choose to follow suit and turn a blind eye to our issues, too. Rather than acknowledging and addressing them, we live Hollywood’s portrayals—only to be led down a shameful path of self-inflicted psychological wounds that are taught never need healing. A health care system designed to discourage certain marginalized groups from seeking the care they deserve certainly poses a roadblock. However, there are other ways of finding support and encouragement in our own needs.
We can change the narrative.
Today is a better day than ever to start an open conversation about mental health and self-care. Social media is a powerful tool for sharing. With it, we can tell our true, unique perspectives as a community and as individuals. Considering socio-economic issues, constant oppression and injustice, a number of psychosocial factors make us far more susceptible to mental suffering and we must remain aware and informed.
Having a mental illness or challenge should no longer be another silent killer of our community.
Let us be empowered by our conditional traumas, not discouraged. Remember how necessary it is to routinely check in with your own mind and acknowledge what feels right and what doesn’t. You are allowed to be afraid and uncomfortable while doing so, but you don't have to live in those feelings forever. Just like everyone else, you deserve to be freed of your mental suffering.
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It's no secret that I, like many other black millennials, struggle with mental health. I have dealt with anxiety and depression for years. It never (drastically) affected my school work, however it really affected me when I started my career. I had a job I didn't enjoy, under a manager I didn't enjoy, in a place I didn't enjoy. At my lowest, I thought some of the worst things that I don't dare repeat or write out. Thankfully, I was able to get help and get well. I did so by following some of the steps outlined below.
Check your benefits
Depending on your job, you might be able to request an accommodation for your condition. If your health is preventing you from working at full capacity, then you should reach out to HR to explore this option. For example, if you suffer from ADD and have trouble working for long periods of time, you might be eligible for an accommodation that would allow you to take more frequent breaks every couple of hours. In my experience, your employer will require a letter from a physician explaining your condition and the accommodations requested. Keep in mind that the federal government considers mental health to be a disability. Legally, your employer is not able to discriminate against you for disclosing your mental health status or the need for an accommodation. Do not be afraid to contact HR to request modifications to your job duties and work environment.
Get some help
It's extremely difficult to tackle mental health disorders without professional help. This can be from a licensed therapist and/or a psychiatrist. Look for a therapist who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not just venting sessions. Likewise, you should explore finding a good psychiatrist to follow your treatment.
A good psychiatrist will not only find the right medication, but also have therapy sessions and diagnose other underlying conditions that you might not know about.
Personally, I struggled until I found both a therapist and psychiatrist. I see my psychiatrist weekly and my therapist bi-weekly (it was weekly at one point.) It was really important for me to find a therapist who could relate to me. My first therapist once questioned my thoughts about the lack of diversity and advancement for black people in the workplace. I knew then that I needed to see someone who could understand the nuances of black womanhood, in and out of corporate America. Yet I ruled off therapy anyway. I figured I didn't need it if that was what it was going to be like. It was not until my depression and anxiety got really bad a few months later that I decided to take action. Thankfully, I found a great therapist at a practice tailored toward people like me.
There are a lot of therapists who focus on underrepresented groups such as people of color, LGBTQIA, etc. If you claim one or more of those identities, I suggest you find a specialized therapist like I did.
It made my experience and treatment process so much more effective. When it came to choosing a psychiatrist, I went with a recommendation a friend had given me. My psychiatrist was excellent at diagnosing and treating my disorders; he gave me the correct medicine with the right dosage and I had very minimal side effects. Ask people you trust for recommendations on therapists and psychiatrists. You can also ask your primary care doctor for a psychiatrist recommendation.
Practice self-care daily
Practicing self-care on a daily basis is something that my therapist taught me. No, you don't have to get a fancy massage or treat yourself to a steak dinner every night. Who has the money for that anyway? You can incorporate small things that you look forward to into your daily routine. For example, taking 30 minutes of your day to read your favorite book of poems or unplugging every night at a certain time. The point of self-care is to look forward to something delightful, not for it to feel like a chore. You can check out more ideas about practicing self-care here.
Try alternative methods
Disclaimer: trying alternative methods is not meant to replace any of the above, it is simply meant to supplement. Got that? Supplement, not replace. Now that we got that out of the way, there are a plethora of alternative therapeutic actions that you can take to supplement (in case you missed it) your mental health routines. This includes but is not limited to: yoga, exercise, exploring creativity (art, music, dance, etc.), and floating. You've probably heard of all of those except maybe floating. It's when you lay in a big bathtub or tank full of warm water and salt. For an hour. With nothing but your thoughts. It allows for a lot of introspection and meditation like you've never experienced before. There is no feeling like the high that you feel after completing a float session. I first tried floating at Bloom Wellness in Ann Arbor, MI. It's a truly magical experience and I recommend that everyone try it.
If you go to therapy, you will probably be able to identify the cause of your disorder(s). It could be a relationship, family, job, financial situation, etc. You will either have to find coping mechanisms or remove the trigger from your life. If it's your job, we've already discussed pursuing an accommodation. What if that doesn't work? What do you do then? In my situation, my job was making me stressed and unhappy. I did all of the above and I was still unhappy. I felt better emotionally and mentally, but I still could not even pretend to like my job. So I decided to leave.
It was not an easy decision. I still have doubts. However, I decided that I value my mental health and happiness over a job, person or situation. That sounds a bit idealistic, but it's my truth. This decision isn't one that everyone will be able to make. I do not expect a person with expenses and children to just quit their job. Nonetheless, I do encourage people to prioritize their happiness and mental health. You don't necessarily need to stop working the moment you start feeling anxious or depressed or experience mania at work, but you can begin to look for other positions inside and outside of your company that will be less triggering for you. Your happiness matters. Your mental health matters. You matter.
I hope this helps provide some advice about dealing with mental health at work. Please comment and share about your experience with mental health disorders and coping with them in the workplace.
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It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, yet there seems to be a stifling silence dwelling within the black community. We aren’t talking about Kalief Browder. About MarShawn McCarrel. About ourselves and our near-death battles we absolutely fight but almost never talk about.
In an effort to try and defy my suspicion that we yet again had fallen silent around this topic, I started searching “suicide” across popular black media outlets and publications. To no avail, I instead found recaps of street style at Made in America, Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy, think-pieces on Lena Dunham wildin’ and election antics. The closest thing I could find was Ebony’s interview with Darryl McDaniels this past August, which is apparently Black Mental Health Awareness Month.
But what about September 5-11, 2016—National Suicide Prevention Week? What about the thousands of black Americans nationwide struggling daily with mental health issues? Why aren’t we talking about this?
I threw myself into a deep rabbit hole, rereading The New Yorker’s coverage of Kalief’s life behind bars at Rikers Island. It changed him, permanently. I learned Kalief attempted suicide roughly five times while at Rikers. After 10 months in prison, he tried to hang himself with his bedsheets. I read the sickening words of prison guards egging him on—“Go ahead and jump. You want to commit suicide, so go ahead." Less than two years after he was finally released, Kalief hanged himself for the last time.
I listened to his Bronx accent through my headphones. In the time that he’d been home, he’d earned his GED and a 3.5 GPA at Bronx Community College, yet I still heard the frustration, the pain, the anger in his voice. It made me wonder what MarShawn sounded like. What the cadence of his voice was when he wasn’t commanding the attention of hundreds of student protestors. There hasn’t been an article written about MarShawn since February. February, where narratives of black trauma fit painfully yet conveniently within Black History Month.
What deeply saddens and alarms me perhaps the most about all of this is that far too often, it is our silence that claims us. I am left to wonder that if at some point, Kalief and MarShawn stopped believing that their black lives mattered.
In middle school, I struggled with depression and considered suicide. I remember sitting in my mother’s bed, looking at my wrists, wondering if anybody would miss me if I were gone. The thought of disappearing made my heart race, perhaps a combination of anxiety and anticipated relief. An escape from the pain of my reality.
I hadn’t been talking about how my parent’s divorce made me feel. About the bullying and sexual harassment at school. About my grandfather’s suicide. I remained silent until one day I collapsed because I hadn’t been eating enough not to. After that, my mother intervened. She no longer believed that I was “fine” like I’d passively been saying as a cover-up for all the emotions I was deeply feeling and instead put me in counseling, where I finally broke my silence. Opening up—and my faith in God—saved me.
In the years since middle school, I’ve struggled with sporadic doubts of depression and the type of sorrow that sticks to your skin as if hashtags became summer’s humidity and from seeing black bodies drop to the ground day after day just as the leaves leap from trees in the fall.
How am I still alive? How can we stay alive?
1. Name it & claim it
We have to take ownership of our struggle. The first step to doing that is by naming it. Knowing your enemy helps you figure out how to defeat them. Own your depression. Own your anxiety. Own your eating disorder. Whatever it may be, name it, claim it and I challenge you to take it a step further—learn about it. In your research, you’ll discover that you’re not the only one dealing with these issues and you’ll learn stories of survival too. Just ask Fantasia, Keke Palmer, or Brandon Marshall.
If my mother hadn’t put me in therapy, I very may well have taken my own life by now. Therapy exists so that there is a defined, consistent space for us to be able to speak freely about our struggles to a person outside of our struggles. While confiding in close friends or family may seem like a “safer” option, we have to remember that treating our support system as therapists may eventually damage it. If you’re still a student, it’s likely that your college or university offers counseling sessions, sometimes free of charge. If you’ve graduated, call your healthcare provider to see which providers are within your network. If you’re prescribed medication to help with your mental illness, don’t be ashamed, but be careful of prescription drug addiction and abuse.
3. Write it down
Writing helps me to clear the cacophony often swirling in my head. When there are too many thoughts in my head, I find it hard to focus and instead become side-tracked by my sorrows. Writing them down, though it can be painful at times, ultimately helps me to work through and even let go of those negative emotions. Alex Elle’s #ANOTETOSELF: Meditation Journal comes highly recommended, or, for blank pages, check out these notebooks.
4. Pick up the phone
There are dozens of hotlines that allow you to call in anonymously and unload. Whether you’re dealing with the guilt of an abortion, struggling to leave an abusive relationship behind or feeling flat out worthless, there are numbers that you can call for help. Screenshot the numbers here.
5. Remember that you’re loved, valued & irreplaceable
If you can’t come up with a reason as to why your life is worth living, ask someone who loves you. Seriously—ask your mom, your cousin, auntie, best friend, special friend—somebody who loves you why they need you here. Don’t forget that. Remind yourself how you’ve already overcome. For encouragement you can see, click here.
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After conquering a mountainous achievement such as graduating from college, you’d think one would be on the highest of highs. And with a heart full of confidence and anxious hands, you’d think one would be ready to work in the real world, and be able to seize their career in its purest form. But it doesn’t work like that. Those dreams can be crushed easily by a two-line rejection email or by no response at all. Why won’t anyone hire me? you think. And then you begin second-guessing your skills, experience and ultimately, your worth.
Depression does not have a blunt personality.
Instead, she’s more the gradual kind. She slowly settles into your life like weight gain or hair growth. You don’t notice her progressive intrusion until she slaps you hard in the face. And then you have to acknowledge her. I realized that I was dealing with postgraduate depression six months after graduating. Although I was employed at the time, my job had nothing to do with my degree and it was one of the lowest entry-level positions within the company. So there I was, working a repetitive nine-to-five desk job, gaining absolutely no experience in my field. And to add to the stress of not working in my dream career, I essentially had no close friends who had moved back home like me. It felt like everything that I had worked for and all the wonderful friendships that I had made within the past four years were removed from under me. My degree no longer stood as a symbol of achievement to me, but rather a mockery.
Why not apply for another job? you’re probably asking. Well, of course I did that. But most of my energy was exerted toward my job at the time because that was my main responsibility. And as for pursuing my dream, it had to wait until after 5 p.m. on the weekdays or be scheduled for the weekend. I was literally penciling in my dreams and it made me very irritable.
Fast-forward to seven months later and I finally gathered up the courage and savings to quit my job.
It was mainly because I was tired of working there, but also because I was presented with two writing opportunities, that would’ve been a pay decrease- but at least I would be doing what I love. But within the first two weeks after my last day of work, one of the opportunities was taken away from me. I was offered a remote writing position, but the company had to reverse their offer because of their tight budget. Basically, they couldn’t afford to pay me. So there I was, essentially unemployed. The next few weeks tested my faith and mental strength.
I began to heavily search for writing and marketing positions within my hometown and outside of it. Most of the positions I was well qualified for, and with each cover letter and resume I sent off, I had a surge of confidence. Within a two-week span I sent out more than 15 applications, half of which sent a general response of "We’ll contact you if we see a match." The other half, I heard nothing from. So I sent follow-up emails to these potential employers I hadn’t heard from, and I still never got a response. Meanwhile, the other writing opportunity remained and I accepted, which made me feel extremely happy and useful.
But then two months later, life got real.
I was working on my first round of stories for the publication, but like most freelance gigs, you don’t get paid until after your story is published. I was able to continue paying my bills with my savings, but with nothing to replenish it with, my funds became very strained. At this time I felt like I was in a fight that I was just then realizing I had lost.
Then in December, my grandmother passed away from cancer. And I couldn’t pay to travel to her funeral. This felt like another blow to my stomach. I felt defeated. And I knew that my emotional wellness was slowly sinking.
My ah-ha moment was when I heard a pastor on the radio say, “You don’t have to be strong.”
And that wrecked my mind. And I started releasing my anxiety by writing about it and by taking mental breaks where I would only allow myself to focus on irrelevant subjects, i.e., watching television, exercising and hanging out with friends.
This is also around the time when I began to see the value in gratitude. I started to realize that depression and gratitude can't coexist together; they can only grow exclusively. If one is growing, the other is starving. Gratitude causes you to be more positive and not dwell on the negative. It makes you focus on what you do have instead of the lack thereof. Therefore, it has the power to help cancel out sadness you're feeling.
I’m happy to say that I am no longer overwhelmed by my postgraduate depression, but rather still coping with it. It still creeps up on me sometimes, but I’m able to use my gratitude as a weapon of choice. And by doing this I am learning that just because I am coping with depression, doesn't mean that I can't be happy at the same time. On the contrary, my happiness propels me to cope with my depression.
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Many of us wake up early, get the kids ready for school, then head to work where we spend eight hours being the lesser paid (but equally intelligent) wing woman to a coworker (who is likely white, male or both). During lunch, the bestie calls to catch up on life and vent. After work, we come home to wait hand and foot on bae while making sure the kids are finishing their homework. While preparing dinner, we throw in that last load of laundry. By the time dinner is ready, it’s too late to go to the gym, so we feed ourselves with a laxative tea and sleep with a waist-cincher. After all, we’ve got to keep it right and tight for the viewing pleasure of others.
As black women, we do it all.
We are loving daughters, nurturing mothers, supportive partners, successful businesswomen, determined students and innovative entrepreneurs. But once we get home and the cape comes off, what happens to the burdens that are left for us to bear? Who is there to pick up our pieces when the madness of the world leaves us depleted of energy and hope? Finally, why are we afraid to admit when something just doesn’t feel right?
The stigma of a black woman being typecast as a certain character doesn’t have to be accurate. The truth is, many of the circumstances that cause us to neglect our mental health are because of systems put in place that never intended to assist us in the first place. Although addressing the stereotypes alone certainly will not cure any conditions, it's a necessary first step in figuring out the "why."
The stereotypes behind the stigma
Dating back to U.S. slavery, each plantation had Mammy: The black woman convinced that everyone else’s well-being mattered more than hers. The matriarch who suppresses her dreams to assist in fulfilling those of others around her, Mammy thrives on being the most obedient yet solid rock of a servant as possible. When it comes down to it, she’s clutch and people praise her for it. Behind closed doors however, her spirit is as equally worn out as her hands and feet. A tired life of failing to practice self-care causes her to become numb to her own desires.
Another popular stereotype within the black community is the Jezebel: Someone with an unhealthy appetite for lust and sex. As a child, perhaps, she was badly mistreated and abandoned by the paternal figure in her life. Because of this, she builds a mental wall as protection from any future chance of heartbreak. This complex leads her down an exhausting life path of finding love in all the wrong places. She has adapted to enduring mental — and sometimes physical — abuse from her partners. Over time, her sense of self-worth and purpose completely exit her soul.
Then there’s the modern day Sapphire: A black woman who wears a chip on her shoulder. She has a tendency of spewing hatred and bitterness, especially in relationships. She enjoys using aggression to bully and emasculate. She is deemed the ‘angry black woman’ to society. At home, she hates the person she has become, although she feels she has no control of her emotions.
While Hollywood chooses to tell one side of the story of the black woman, it rarely considers the state of her mental health.
Anxiety, mood, psychotic, eating, impulse control, personality, obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders impact millions of women in the black community. Scientific data wants us to believe that the mental health conversation is an all-encompassing umbrella that shouldn’t be race-specific due to a lack in evidence, when in fact, race might actually be the biggest factor. According to Mental Health America, 6.8 million African Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the number among black women in the U.S. is probably much greater than reported. The social stigma surrounding our community might turn some away from seeking the proper help. We are so used to displaying unwavering strength to the public that we only further separate ourselves from the idea of wholeness we strive to maintain.
Since childhood, we learn to consistently internalize certain feelings for the sake of those around us. We grew up watching the maternal figures in our family braving any and every potentially meltdown-worthy situation, from finances to illnesses. The cycle has continued and needs to stop. We don’t have to be defined by the stereotypes; it's possible to break through to the other side and achieve total peace of mind. By first acknowledging the stereotypes behind the stigma, we can begin an open dialogue. And from that point, we can choose to overcome our fears of weakness or vulnerability.
Yes, we are black women and we can do it all. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when we need it.
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Nicolette “Nic” Graves is a food technologist, nutrition consultant and health education specialist with a background in micronutrient deficiency, agricultural development and food security. Her mission is to help fill the disparity gap by helping communities overcome the obstacles of a healthy diet by refining habits and revamping plates, one indulgence at a time. Through her health and wellness platform, niktrition.com, which is dedicated to empowering women through their pursuit of health by defying the status quo, you can get nutrition coaching and several on-demand programs created to help you nourish yourself, get FLEEKy and snatched while thriving on delicious eats and self-love. Read our interview with Blavity Creative Society member Nicolette below:
Blavity: Tell us more about why you started Niktrition.
Nicolette Graves: Well, Niktrition is really just the brain child of my personal evolution.
I came pre-packaged with an infatuation with food. In fact, my nickname growing up was Gutsy Gloria (thanks, Dad) and obviously, the connotation of “gutsy" wasn’t something that sits well even at the age of 8 — even if I was good for putting away seconds and thirds. For the subsequent 12 years, I dieted. (Yes, at 8 I had my own form of diet food i.e.. butter pasta = gotta lay off that tomato sauce). I was “healthy” and read all the seminal works on being skinny at all costs and how to lose your enthusiasm for food in three days… it was le struggle. The craziest part was I was pre-med, I knew the science behind proper nutrition, but per usual I tried to outsmart the system by using trends instead. When it worked I was obsessed and when it didn’t... I was obsessed. Damned either way. It left me tired and in need for something more sustainable. So instead of trying to beat the system, I opted to work with it and haven’t looked back since. As time progressed, I began to realize the only way I could have ever allowed such treatment to my body despite knowing better was my mental state: The perception I had of what my body represents, my relationship with food and my own sense of self worth.
Essentially, Niktrition came out of this compilation of experiences, knowledge gained, questions asked, and a desire to optimize it all for better distribution. It’s really gone through several forms. From just learning the scientific foundation of proper nutrition, to understanding the implications of socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, ethnic and historical factors that play a role in our state of health. Once I got to graduate school and started doing my research on food access and development, everything became amassed and began to spiral into all these thoughts I was having, mixed with me always wanting to help, mixed with me feeling a type of way about the unequal focus on “fixing” foreign developing countries but nothing done for the developing communities right here at home. Plus, I was learning and learning a lot and wanted to keep learning, but knew I had a responsibility to the community.
So I had all this knowledge, all these facts, but facts are facts are facts — how do you apply them? How can you really help yourself if people are just throwing out facts and not showing you skills, tips and tricks that can aid you and your situation? More explicitly, how do we get underserved communities to apply the necessary health practices? When it comes to health, we each have a unique experience/struggle/circumstance which either supports or impedes our status.
B: Why, for you, is self-love intertwined with a healthy lifestyle/nutrition?
NG: Self-love is the foundation to living a fulfilled life overall. When you love yourself, you have accepted who you are for who you are. You are making a conscious effort to make your perception of yourself the definitive guide. This then molds self-esteem and body image, which then in a cyclic nature sets the tone for how you feel about yourself. When you have ownership over you, it’s a feeling that can’t be matched. Right now, the trends on the market aren’t embedded in self-love… it’s this "fix yourself because there is something inherently wrong with who you are right now" mentality. It’s "you cool and all, but you could be better if you did this." It’s "bash people for their preferences or side-eye her cause of her eating habits." It’s "make others feel self-conscious in order to lift ourselves up." In all honesty, I think it takes self-love for you to truly achieve, benefit and feel fulfilled by anything.
What you feed your mind determines your appetite. #StayWoke #ReadingIsFundamental
A photo posted by Nic, Nutritionist/MS 🍍🌿 (@niktrition) on Jun 30, 2016 at 3:27pm PDT
B: Talk about your passion for empowering women through your site and through one-on-one coaching.
NG: Despite having had the right to vote for some-odd 96 years, “equal rights” for women are still pending and women are still pining at the door to sit at the table. We are still seen and treated as objects, and the worst part is we internalize that sh-t. We internalize it and then shape our reality based on standards, rules, and other BS not even set by us. Empowering women, especially young black professionals who have their sh-t together from an achievement standpoint but struggle to tie together the other ends of their lives (such as their state of wellness) is the least I could do.
That incessant grind to the top is ambitious, applause-worthy and poppin'. But as I said, it’s incessant, and in order to shine your brightest, the vessel carrying you needs to have its machinery intact. Black women have been told for forever they can’t have it all. I think our generation is changing that and health shouldn’t be sacrificed or left to the wayside. Your well-being should be just as high a priority as your success, because it ultimately affects it. There are so many barriers standing in our way as far as external factors — health shouldn’t be one of them.
Feed your focus.
A photo posted by Nic, Nutritionist/MS 🍍🌿 (@niktrition) on May 3, 2016 at 4:31pm PDT
B: What are your thoughts on the relationship between mental wellness and nutrition?
NG: They go hand in hand. Literally, nutrition provides the building blocks your body needs to carry out basic functions, such as existing, while your mental determines everything else. In fact, recently there has been a surge in evidence illuminating the importance of nutrition as a factor in mental wellness from a physiological standpoint… literally nutrients and chemicals in our bodies interact to keep us running. Those same interactions can also determine how we feel, our behavior and our capacity to use our brain. Which is major if you think about the impact your mood, behavior and ability to analyze affect your ability to be a productive member of society.
B: There has been a recent wave of black women empowering themselves via healthy living, what are your thoughts on spreading the importance of wellness throughout our communities?
NG: Wellness has been a topic often forced to hang in the balance in the black community and that can be seen by simply flipping through the CDC’s statistics. The health disparity gap is disrespectful at the least. For a very long time, we didn’t have the resources — time, money, knowledge — to care. That landscape is changing. I could say my background in public health made me aware of the importance of community, but really, that’s common sense for us. What my educational background did allow was for me to have full on access to systematic reviews covering the disparity gap and its causes; the systemic issues that impale our ability to truly live well; the power of community education, especially for minority demographics; and the importance of cultural relativism.
That last one is a huge one. Cultural relativism. It’s something I struggled with on my own health journey, and it’s a complaint I hear time and time again… often in the form of “How can I eat better without eating grass” or “I like my food seasoned” and “do I have to drink green juice?” Let’s be real, nobody cares what Becky has to say about nutrition, she’s just not relatable. But when we found out Bey did the 22-day vegan, it started to look interesting. That’s just the way it is. Having people who can identify with our experiences enlightening us can only make us better as individuals and a community. It’s what has been missing.
Working, getting my life, and breathing the freshest air this concrete jungle has to offer. My new favorite space = The Oasis, an on-demand botanical sanctuary. @wohaneillay back at it again 📸.
A photo posted by Nic, Nutritionist/MS 🍍🌿 (@niktrition) on Apr 3, 2016 at 12:36pm PDT
B: What is your favorite part about the work you do?
NG: Seeing other women blow themselves away by being built up.
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Mental health is a topic that comes with a stigma, especially in certain communities. For many, expressing that they have a mental illness is as equal as expressing a weakness. No one wants to seem weak, so people hide behind their symptoms afraid to seek treatment. Afraid to step from behind the fear and shadows, we have seen the impacts of mental illness going untreated and undiagnosed. The truth of the matter is, you are not alone. Thanks to a college athlete, we are reminded that we are human and being human means being honest with yourself.
As a freshman, Isaiah Woods played in every one of the University of Washington's football games. As a rising star, Woods had 13 catches during the season and was sure to have a promising career in the NFL one day. Unexpectedly upon arriving at Washington, Woods started to experience symptoms of anxiety. In an interview with ESPN, he discusses how his journey to diagnosis began. During a road trip to play against Oregon State he experienced what he believes is his first anxiety attack. "I remember putting my head on the seat in front of me and trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my breathing down. By that time, it was too late. The last thing I remember is being on the bus and then waking up at the hotel."
That anxiety attack was only the beginning for Woods. From then on he experienced bouts of depression, forcing him at times to not want to get out of bed. His symptoms began to take over and he missed spring practice. Woods was hospitalized after he began to feel the lowest of lows. It was then that he made the decision to step away from football. This is a huge decision for such a talented player, but the NCAA is starting to see more college athletes suffering from mental health issues. The NCAA issued a Mental Health Best Practices Guide to help address some of these issues and prepare coaches and staff alike on how to address them.
In May, Woods tweeted what should be known as one of the best tweets by a college football player. Addressing the need to take care of his mental health, he released a statement telling his truth on Twitter and showing us that none of us are alone in this battle.
Been debating on posting this but this is me taking steps in the right direction to becoming myself again.. pic.twitter.com/ptE1k9oKKJ
— Isaiah Woods (@WaveGodZay) May 29, 2016
Best wishes to Isaiah Woods on finding his place of peace and managing his health.
Watch his interview with ESPN below:
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