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 that I speak too properly, am too smart or too “uppity” to be black. ( disclaimer – These are generalizations based on my experiences, I do not represent an entire group of people.)I’ve been told that black people do not own dogs. You read that correctly. I’ve been told black people don’t own dogs. Just hearing this, the reader might suspect that I have been subjected to the most rank and disgusting racial prejudice, and I have been.
In fact, all of these statements have been pronounced to me by people who share my skin tone. That’s right, 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. One word: family. Most black people 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, but today we are going to do a quick rundown of five of the main reasons that black people don’t accept your diagnosis.
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. Doctors haven’t always been kind- 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 1950’s 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 all 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 1950’s, 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 successes of her cells, and even though they secured the fortunes of many pharmaceutical companies, her family still lives in Maryland in poverty. 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. These 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 African Americans. 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 is supernaturally. 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.
I guess by now you are beginning to see the point. Black people, for many reasons just don’t believe in mental illness. They view it as a weakness, as something that only people who don’t have to work hard can afford to suffer from. They believe that if you have control over your mind then you can will the illness away. Unfortunately, because of these deeply held prejudice, many of our people are held in the bondage of depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and a variety of other disorders because we simply are too ashamed to seek treatment. If we are brave enough to press forward with a goal of taking medicine for treatment, oftentimes we know that we will not find our support in the people who we most desire it from: our family. Our fellow black people. This is not an easy path we walk; it is a lonely and sometimes desperate journey. Please read part two for the rest of For Whites Only? Five reasons why Black people ridicule your diagnosis.
UPDATE: As I was looking back over this post, I realized I wanted to express this sentiment on a larger scale. So i put it on a tshirt. You have to go get yourself a “Depression is Not For Whites Only” tee. Click the link and head on over to that teespring campaign. It is only running for a week, so get yours today! https://teespring.com/depression-not-for-whites-only
Until next time,