There was a scene in episode seven of Insecure that stuck with me. In it, Molly tells Issa about a mutual old friend she ran into who is now glowing with good vibes. The old friend told Molly that she’s been doing great lately and that she owes her rejuvenated spirit to therapy.
Molly laughs this off with Issa, but it’s obvious that the idea has worked its way into her mind. She tells Issa this story in the hopes that they can laugh about the friend together, to reassure herself that therapy is a ridiculous idea. Therapy? Who goes to therapy? “It’s like paying for a fake friend,” Molly says.
Despite Molly’s efforts to cut ass on the Zen princess, Issa doesn’t give in. “But did she say that therapy is working for her?” Issa asks. They continue talking about it, and in the end, Molly is insulted when she thinks that Issa is implying that she could be helped by therapy. But that’s simply a projection of her own thoughts: Molly probably wants to go to therapy, but there’s something holding her back.
In the Black community, there’s a stigma about mental health issues. We almost treat them like a myth. We tell each other that it’s something white people experience. We don’t believe that brains can develop disorders and diseases the same way other parts of our body can. We make ourselves believe that we are a resilient race of people who are immune to mental and emotional distress because our ancestors have experienced much worse.
But that’s not true. People of all races experience mental illness, and sometimes intersecting identities can affect a person’s mental health. In the case of Black people, there are several factors that can impact our mental health, and many of them have to do with race.
Causes of Mental Health Issues in the Black Community
Our nation was founded on laws, beliefs, and systems meant to disenfranchise and degrade Black people. Although slavery and segregation are abolished, Black people still feel the effects of racism—both institutional and casual—every day, and these challenges can impact our mental health.
Mental Health America explains the relationship between historical adversity and mental health in the Black community:
“Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today. Socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health: People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.”
In other words, the challenges Black people face as a result of our oppressive system can have a direct effect on mental health. According to The State of Working America, Black people account for 27.4% of impoverished people, which is the highest rate among all races. Even worse, 45.8% of Black youth live in poverty.
There is also a disproportionate amount of Black men in prison compared to any other race. Black people comprise 13% of the population, yet Black men make up 37% of federal institutions and 38% of prisons. These factors all contribute to the poor mental health that some Black people experience, as mental issues can be caused by exposure to violence, trauma, and isolation.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Black people are more susceptible to depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, suicide, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder due to systemic oppression. This is partly due to the factors I listed and partly because of misdiagnosis based on race. I’ll explain later.
Although I cannot personally relate to all of the hardships mentioned above, I know people who do, and I’ve witnessed the mental and emotional toll that poverty, incarceration, and homelessness can have on an individual. Yet, other factors can impact our mental health as well: I feel hopeless and depressed when another Black person is killed by a police officer, when another white man walks away from a rape charge, and especially when I learned that Donald Trump was elected president. These specific challenges hit Black people, women, LGBTQIA+ people, and people of color the hardest.
Mental Illness in Black Men and Black Women
Insecure aside, there have been conversations in the media about Black people and mental health recently, particularly in the case of Black men.
In October, Kid Cudi came out about his battle with depression and checked into a rehabilitation center. His actions sparked a conversation on Twitter led by the hashtag #Yougoodman. Black men tweeted about their own struggles with mental health to stand in solidarity with Cudi. One of my favorite tweets from the thread is this:
“As Black men we’ve been taught not to talk about mental illness or express our emotions. Glad we’re having the conversation”
This is true. Our society has built masculinity into a performance that is sometimes beneficial to men but other times detrimental to their personalities and health. One of the most harmful teachings of masculinity is the notion that men cannot be vulnerable—that by doing so, they are stripping themselves of their strength and pride, or worse, acting like women. Because men are taught to keep their feelings inside (and from a very young age, warned not to cry and instead encouraged to react with violence or aggression when upset or hurt), some men struggle with opening up to others in moments of need.
I am glad that Kid Cudi—and now Kanye West—have inspired us to have more thoughtful, albeit it overdue, discussions about Black men and mental health. We need to support Black men who are going through the worst of times and encourage them to seek professional help when they’re hesitant to. But what about Black women?
Last summer, when Azealia Banks wrote an open letter publicly expressing her struggles with mental health issues, several news outlets called bullshit. Because she was known for having heated Twitter disputes with celebrities over artistry, cultural appropriation, and white supremacy, she was dubbed another Black woman who simply didn’t know her place.
Banks’ letter spoke of her frequent feelings of being the other, or being judged by men and by the industry for her looks, and her overall battles with mental health. But no one really took her cries for help into account. Instead, one outlet said she was placing the blame on everyone but herself.
Are we more forgiving when men talk about struggles with mental illness than when women do? I wonder if it has to do with our society’s gender values. Erratic emotional behaviors are accepted—rather, expected—from women in our culture, and they’re usually attributed to shifting hormones and menstrual cycles. And because men are taught to be strong and collected, bearing the weight of the family and internalizing their deepest emotions, are we prone to take their cries for help more seriously?
However, it must be taken into account that in the case of both West and Banks, their online antics were dismissed as race-driven rants or purely ignorant and impulsive banter. This seems to be coming from a biased place: the angry Black man and angry Black woman stereotypes. If a Black person is angry and vocal, the stereotype goes, it’s because they’re Black and it’s in their nature. Rarely do people say it’s because of a possible mental or emotional imbalance—or better yet, blame the aspects of society that can drive marginalized people mad.
Why it Can Be Difficult for Black People to Seek the Right Help
I am interested in seeing a therapist, but unlike Molly, I have no qualms about it. My only concern is that, ideally, I’d like my therapist to be a Black woman or a person of color. This is because I want to speak to someone who can relate to me culturally. Having that extra level of empathy and understanding will, I hope, allow my therapist to analyze my problems from a more sensitive outlook. And it could possibly avoid the problem of misdiagnosis.
According to NAMI, only a quarter of Black people seek mental health care compared to 40% of white people. Besides socioeconomic factors, lack of insurance and little to no access to Black health care professionals (we only make up less than 2% of members in the American Psychological Association and 3.7% in the American Psychiatric Association), NAMI reports that we don’t go to shrinks because of skepticism and mistrust:
“Historically, African Americans have been and continue to be negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the healthcare system. Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural competence by health professionals cause distrust and prevent many African Americans from seeking or staying in treatment.”
Thankfully, we’re working on a solution to that. There’s this movement called Black psychology that involves “studying the importance of racial identity as a protective factor against depression and stress, studying the detrimental effects of racism and evaluating the effects of the media on the Black psyche. Other research includes the evaluation of therapies appropriate for people of African descent, and the implementation of prevention programs for inner-city youth.” Some of the originators of the concepts behind Black psychology are Dr. Linda James Myers and Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing.
Maybe one day, talking about mental issues within the Black community will become normalized and it will be easier to access psychiatrists and therapists of color. Better yet, maybe all mental health care professionals will learn to take race, gender, and class into account when working with patients. But for now, I’m keeping Solange’s “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)” on repeat.