While May is Mental Health Awareness month, many people are not aware of what mental health is, and why it is important to each person, family, and community. According to SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “Sixteen percent (4.8 million) of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness, and 22.4 percent of those (1.1 million people) reported a serious mental illness over the past year”. People not included in this count can include those who experience mental health issues but lack a diagnosis due to lack of access to mental health services and also those who feel like they need to stay silent about their mental health due to the stigma of mental health in the black community.
While we may not know the actual number of people in the black community who live with a mental illness, we can understand why so many African-Americans may experience a threat to balance within their mental health. Recent studies have shown that it is highly predictable that blacks will experience some type of mental health distress due to trauma and the many forms that may take, such as systemic racism, generational trauma, etc. However, because mental health is sometimes seen as a weakness within the black community, many individuals find themselves in a space of trying to figure out how to deal with it on their own, from emotional eating, alcoholism, and drug use, to name a few, which may further exacerbate both mental health and physical health issues.
So, how do we address this? First, it is important to understand what mental health is. Mental health is comprised of our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It impacts how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It also impacts how we communicate socially, inclusive of work, family, and church contexts. In this context, every human has mental health, just as we all have physical health-mental health does not mean mental illness.
Like physical health, when our mental health is properly attended to, we often tend to feel a sense of overall satisfaction within our lives. It does not mean that life is no longer stressful, but we find that the stress is manageable and does not overwhelm us. We can make decisions about our lives with a sense of clarity and are also able to enjoy certain aspects of our lives. We are also able to create and sustain mutually supportive relationships and a sense of purpose in our lives. When our mental health is ignored, it can lead to illness, which can often be seen within the sustained conflict in relationships, difficulty in making decisions in one’s life, and lead to an overall dissatisfaction with our lives. This illness can come from multiple sources such as genetics, trauma, etc., just like a physical health illness. For some, it can also lead to death.
So, what can we do about this? To begin with, we need to challenge common messages about mental health in our communities. While spirituality is an important part of maintaining mental health, telling someone that they should “just pray about it” is not enough. Typically, we don’t just pray when we have a physical health ailment and believe that it will miraculously go away. Instead, we engage in lifestyle changes, take medication if needed, and seek additional support from professionals. Similarly, our mental health may require those steps as well. If you feel like your mental health is suffering, reach out to mental health organizations such as Therapy for Black Girls, Therapy for Black Men, and Innopsych to talk to a mental health professional. Secondly, search for spaces that normalize mental health. Organizations such as Chicago-based Coffee, Hip-Hip and Mental Health (CHHMH) and the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) regularly hold events where you can go and learn about mental health so that you can define mental health for yourself, and find support from others. Spaces like these can also help you create change that can help you maintain your mental health, such as exercising, journaling, and engaging in other self-care activities. Finally, start to build your own healthy support team. Let people know how they can support you and consider asking them how they might like to be supported. If you find that you do not have anyone that you feel safe discussing your mental health with, consider joining a support group. Organizations like Safe Black Space offer healing circles to create black-centered support around cultural and racial trauma.
Above all, know that you are not alone. The narrative around black mental health is changing as more of us are engaging in our own healing process and seeing the benefits of owning our mental health, instead of letting others define it for us. Owning your own mental health means that you are creating your own narrative, which helps us heal and not only strengthen ourselves, but also our friends, families, businesses, and communities.
Chante’ Gamby is a writer passionate about social justice and empowering others to live their healthiest lives. You can follow her on Facebook at Fringefam, Instagram@fringegram, or on her website, www.fringefam.com.