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Being black can put you in a precarious situation. It is a slippery slope where you are constantly being accused of either being “too black” or the ever-dreaded “too white.” So far in my life, I have been told more times than I care to get into that I’m just not black enough.
All of these statements have been pronounced to me by people who share my skin tone. Black people have prejudices about what you should or should not be doing while black and they are not too shy with their opinions of your behavior. There are some things that they do refuse to acknowledge, however, and one of those things is mental illness within the community. Black people who suffer from mental illness often find themselves at the end of a string of insults from the people from whom they seek support.
“Why should you care if people of your own race don’t understand or accept your diagnosis”, one might ask. The community is like your extended family. We love family, so much so that we even adopt people into our families as a sign of how much they mean to us. You can frequently find those of us who refer to cousins who aren’t really relatives, aunts, and uncles who are only neighbors and siblings who our parents did not conceive. We have a network of people who will support us just on the basis of you being “Joe’s son” or “Rhonda’s niece” merely because by birth or by choice we are considered family. We love family reunions and trips, and it is considered a great honor to be in charge of planning and hosting the yearly gathering in your city.
Now imagine as someone having been raised with this sense of community, to have it cruelly ripped away because you received a mental health diagnosis. There are many reasons why this is, here are a few of them.
1. We are expected to control our emotions– Emotions are a hard thing for the black community to process. Due to centuries of being forced to deny our feelings even when they raged through us has led us to value being “hard” or “strong” as being able to disguise or ignore your feelings. To be in tune with your emotions and honor them is something the average black child is not taught and historically there was a reason for that: being over the top or out of control could bring terrible consequences for you. Can you imagine if your ancestor was offended when a man ten years his junior referred to him as “boy” in the segregated south, and acted on that? He could have been hung, shot or worse. The Color Purple did an excellent job of displaying this through Sophia, who became so offended when a white woman asked her to clean house for her that she wound up in an altercation with the woman’s husband, leading to 10 years in prison. All because Sophia couldn’t hide her anger and grin and bear it. This carries over even into present-day relations: show your anger or your irritation and watch how quickly you are labeled as an “angry black man” or a “sassy black woman” for experiencing emotions that are no more angry or sassy than those of anybody else.
2. The medical community has preyed on black people– Even though it may not be taught in school as much as we would like, those of us who are wise teach our children their history and what they need to be careful of as young black people. One of the things we know for sure is that the medical community has no problem with experimenting on disenfranchised people (Holocaust, anyone?). The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, for instance, took place in the South in the 1950s and went as follows: researchers infected farmers with syphilis, all so they could see whether the effects of the disease were any different than the average white man (they are not different).
These men infected their lovers and wives, some of them lost their sanity because they trusted doctors. Residents of Baltimore can tell you tales of Johns Hopkins University, where it has been rumored that black people wandering alone after dark would disappear and be experimented on. Regardless, in the 1950s, the University ran a free clinic for the poor black residents of the city, and a woman named Henrietta Lacks went there to be treated for cervical cancer. The scrapings of her cells helped to produce a string of cells called the HeLa cells, which were used to develop the polio vaccine and still live on to this day, produced over and over again in medical labs all over the world. Henrietta, unfortunately, did not live to see the medical achievements that came to pass because of her cells, and even though they secured the fortunes of many pharmaceutical companies, her family does not benefit. They have no means by which to tap even a small portion of the riches that their loved one earned for the hospital or the countless other places that began using the cells.
Those examples are just a few of the ways that we have been abused by the medical community. Now imagine this same medical community who has abused your people coming to you saying that they want to medicate you, your friend or your child. Though the relationship between the medical community and African Americans has made strides, we have a long way to go, and we will quickly tell you that just because a doctor says something doesn’t make it so. Which brings us to our next point– if you don’t go to the physician, who can you rely on for healing?
3. Jesus wants to heal you supernaturally – Faith is another dearly loved subject for many of us. Even if you were not valued in the community at large, there was always a title and position for you in the church. Elders, deacons, pastors, bishops, evangelists, prophets – we love our titles. Needless to say, we have some strong opinions on faith and the way one’s life should be conducted surrounding that faith. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that Jesus only heals one way, and that way is supernatural.
Go ahead, tell your grandmother or auntie that you have ADHD and you want to consider taking medicine for it. See if she doesn’t dole out some version of “Jesus is the master physician,” and proceed to put you to shame for even suggesting that you might take a more natural approach to these matters. You will be accused of not having enough faith, even as you grapple with the mixed emotions of wanting to be seen as faithful while at the same time wanting to trust your doctor and attempt what they are suggesting. Feel free to do so, the guilt trips aren’t going anywhere.
4. Conformity, or being rated as “black enough” is supposed to be your primary goal.
I want to meet the black police. Or the black board, senate, caucus or coven that makes these rules. This particular part of being black has always frustrated me, mostly because I never seem to fall safely within the black enough parameters. I gave up years ago, but even when I would try it seems like a system that is set up to control me. Mainly because it is. If I want to listen to country or rock music, own a pet, wear certain styles of clothing, follow a political party or even worship God in a different way, many blacks will scold, shame and ridicule me back into line ( or in my case, into offended silence).
With enough of these experiences, I quickly became able to define “what black people do” as whatever I felt like doing at that time. After all, Ray Charles was inspired by country music. Ike Turner, regardless of his other issues, was one of the pioneers of the sound that became rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix frequently lamented the lack of black people who could get into what he played. Dennis Rodman scandalized black people with his wild hair and wilder behavior off the court in the 1990s. Trailblazers in medicine, education, and science have similar experiences with this inner prejudice. So if being black enough means conforming to someone else’s opinions,
Many in the community just don’t believe in mental illness, for the aforementioned reasons. If you try to tell them about your experiences, prepare to get hit with the dreaded “trying to act white.” If we as black people fear anything, it is this accusation. It takes a particularly strong person to push past these assumptions and prejudices to take care of him or her self. People should know that when they blow someone off about their mental illness and cite one of these foolish reasons, they are dooming them to be alone during a period when they are vulnerable and most in need of support.
There is also fear when you separate yourself from the crowd for a very good reason: if you stand out you draw attention to yourself and by extension the rest of the black population. Oftentimes when the news comes on, and a particularly heinous story comes on, many of us will say to each other “please, don’t let him be black!” Instead of being judged individually we are often considered the representatives for our entire race. We are expected to know “how black people feel” about things, we’re also often told “you’re not like other black people” or “you don’t act like a typical black person,” a feeling that never ceases to make a person wonder: “what do these people think of me, and what are they saying when I am not around?” It is bad enough to be different but you definitely don’t want to show any of your negative qualities around white people. What one of us does affects how the next black person they encounter will be received, so we are taught to avoid anything that might be considered an embarrassment. Your mental illness? You know where that falls, definitely off-limits and taboo.
6. Lack of Education/Awareness
It is amazing how little you can know about a subject if you choose not to acknowledge it. Many black women today who are suffering from depression go untreated because we teach our women that they are strong, that depression is for white women, and that they should be able to tap into that strength rather than reach out for help. Our men often go untreated completely; to seek treatment is to invite the scorn of people who feed into hypermasculinity. It is killing us.
When I received my diagnosis with ADHD, I thought everyone would be so excited for me; at long last, I had found the answer to what I had been missing. I wasn’t lazy or lacking in motivation, I had a problem that education and treatment could resolve. My family members might have it too. After all, ADHD is extremely inheritable. You have the same risk of inheriting this disorder from a parent as you do their eye color. If you think getting people to see YOUR diagnosis is hard, imagine trying to convince them that they too seem to suffer from the disorder.
I have listened to relatives dance around the suggestion they could be displaying ADHD symptoms by saying, “I’m alright, I’ve learned to deal with x,y, and z.” “That’s alright for you, but not everybody wants to go down that path,” I was chided on more than one occasion. I became so frustrated that I gave up. If people choose to remain in ignorance rather than admit they have a problem that has a solution, there is very little that can be done.
This road is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards you will experience are worth it. Untreated ADHD can lead to a life of frustration and unrealized potential. I’m telling you: if you think you have ADHD or any other mental condition that requires intervention, get a professional to assess you. You owe it to yourself. If you don’t want to take medicine don’t; this disorder can be managed a variety of ways. Just don’t suffer in silence. Consider this little corner of the web a place where you can come and get the burden of ridicule off your shoulders. Send me an email, leave a comment. Once I was all alone in this struggle too. You can make it.
Until next time,