Last Monday ended National Mental Health Awareness week. July marked Minority Mental Health Awareness (MMHA) month. Both of these have encouraged those of us suffering from mental health illness to “come out”, so that is what I am doing. I am currently recovering from a year-long bout of clinical depression.
When I originally pitched this article idea to Shelly, it was in July during the height of Minority Mental Health Awareness month. Bassey Ikpi’s organization, the Siwe Project, was founded to encourage mental health dialogue within the African Diasporic community. They used MMHA to encourage members of the African Diaspora to “come out” of the proverbial mental illness closet. I can only speak to the intersection of being African-American dealing with mental illness as there are historical reasons for why members of my ethnic community typically do not seek mental health care. The field of psychiatry has long been used to criminalize and “other” African-Americans. During slavery, a slave who sought freedom was said to be suffering from drapetomania. After the MLK riots, schizophrenia went from being a illness associated with white creative artists to being deemed the cause for angry black males rioting in the streets after the assassination of MLK. There has historically been a mistrust of the medical system in general as it has used African-Americans as guinea pigs on multiple occasions (see here and here) . All of this history leads to a collective community narrative that having mental illness and seeking treatment for mental illness, is something “we” simply don’t do.
I have heard repeatedly within familial and wider black community spaces that mental illness “doesn’t happen to us”, it’s only something that happens to “white folk.” Our ancestors survived chattel slavery, post-slavery forced labor, Jim Crow, redlining, the prison-industrial complex and daily microaggressions; who are you to let a “little sadness” get you down? I was raised by medical professionals who did not adhere to those beliefs, but there was still enough stigma surrounding mental health to prevent me from addressing it at the onset of my illness.
History aside, it remains true that black women are 50% more likely than their white counterparts to suffer from depression related mental illness. Further, studies show that racial stereotypes influence how black women are diagnosed and treated for mental illness (see here). Suicide is rapidly becoming the leading cause of death for young adult black men. To that end, a documented phenomena called racial battle fatigue is linked to higher rates of generalized anxiety disorders amongst African-Americans (the stress of racism has long been recognized by the medical community as one of the reasons for increased hypertension in the black community, but I digress). I’m sure those who flippantly disregard historical and present-day institutional racism as “identity politics” will find a way to interpret these stats as simply a pathology within the black community. Those who have the capacity to grasp critical race theory will understand that these high rates are connected to external societal factors caused by the legacy of institutionalized discrimination in the United States. That conversation, however, could be an entire PhD. dissertation. I am more interested in using this platform to discuss how members of the Wellesley community at large engage with mental health awareness.
I was lucky enough not to have a mental break while at Wellesley. It was something I worried about as there is a history of depression in my family. I spent most of life running from away from any signs that I might have succumb to my family history. All of which was to my own detriment as it prevented me from recognizing the signs when I finally did experience depression.
To that end, a few weeks ago, I attended a book talk for an alumna author. She discussed her battle with depression at Wellesley and throughout her life since then. For alumna like she and myself who are known as “highly-functioning”, coming out as a person with mental illness is very important. Yes, I went to work yesterday, no, I can not get out of bed today. Yes, I fainted this morning (weight loss/low blood pressure from depression) and yes, you saw me in the grocery store this evening. Yes, I can still be productive, but yes, my memory and concentration have been impacted by my illness. No, I am not walking around sad all of the time, depression doesn’t work that way. I want to be clear about the extent of depression and particularly the way that my bout manifested itself. For the majority of April 2012, I was a suicide risk. Every morning that I went to my kitchen to make breakfast and did not make a mad dash for my balcony, was a day that I beat the rapidly depleting serotonin levels in my brain.
That’s not to say that I was a shut-in. I saw many people in April and was at Wellesley for a few days. Many friends that I interacted with will not know until they read this that I was suffering from suicidal ideations. It is really hard to articulate what it is like to have to trick your body into not following innate feelings from your brain, which for me during the majority of April were: end it, as soon as possible. Thank you to my Wellesley friends who I explicitly told about my illness and those who were observant enough to realize something was wrong (often times from various places across the country) and reach out. No need to be worried. I was able to find a doctor and get the medication I needed in time to start the recovery process (thank you President Obama for passing the Affordable Healthcare Act which allowed me to stay on my parent’s insurance and receive the medication I needed. I’d surely be dead without it).
I am interested in this essay creating discussion for others who have dealt with cultural related stigmas surrounding mental health. I know I am not the only one who has had experiences like the ones I have described above. Further, for my Wellesley siblings, particularly those who dealt with mental health issues while at Wellesley: what are your thoughts on the way that mental illness is approached and discussed while at Wellesley and the wider Wellesley alumnae community? Wendy Wellesleys are known for being highly functioning over-productive achievers. Do we do a good job of seeking treatment when we need it? Does the fact that admitting you have mental health issues has traditionally been seen as a sign of weakness, impact how our community members approach the topic of mental health? I’d be interested in hearing thoughts on this topic.
* Mental health is still a taboo topic for much of my extended family. Please help me avoid awkward family dinners this holiday season and refrain from reblogging this with my full name. These same family members regularly Google me (yeah…), and I don’t feel like discussing my battle with depression over sweet potato pie.