“Black people don’t commit suicide. That’s a white thing.”
Who said that? That is a false statement. Blacks suffer from mental illness just like their white counterparts. In fact, when you think of everyday stressors, systematic-racism such as police brutality, education and health care gaps, and sexism that impacts black women, blacks are more likely to be at risk for developing a mental condition.
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and this is a perfect time to shed light on what many deem as nonexistent problem. Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder, bulimia, ADHD, OCD and social anxiety are examples of mental illnesses that people battle daily. In the black community, many choose not to acknowledge mental illness as a sickness. Diseases such as diabetes and cancer are accepted as normal and natural, but what so many fail to realize is that blacks are no different than any other race when it comes to these illnesses. We are not exempt from mental illness.
While some experience mental illness only once in their life (depending on the illness, environment, life stressors, and genetics), others battle mental illness for the rest of their lives. Some of us think that we do not have a problem and truly believe that everyone else is the issue. Unfortunately, these myths and illusions force us to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Mental illness affects “everyday functional” people and it is not limited to the homeless man talking to himself. It impacts a person’s emotions, perception, and behaviors.
As a person with major depression and generalized anxiety disorders, the comments said to me have been heartbreaking and mind-blowing because it prevented me from seeking help. I thought that I was making it up in my head even though I didn’t feel well for years. Finally diagnosed at 25, my doctor stated that the illness started around the age of 13. Can you imagine having cancer without being diagnosed for over 10 years? You would die. Well, I can tell you that I was dying on the inside and it led to multiple suicide attempts. My illness can get so debilitating. At one point, it stopped me from doing basic things such as going to work, talking, eating and showering.
Here are some of the myths that we must stop saying!
Myth #1: Only white people commit suicide.
Fact: According to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013 and the rate among white children committing suicide declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys. While whites still have highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have significantly grown over the past decade. Unfortunately, black youth are killing themselves more frequently than their elders. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24 and a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years in the United States.
Myth #2: Medication doesn’t work and/or they make you feel worse.
Fact: Medication is necessary for some individuals in their mental recovery. While they are NOT cures for mental illness, they are vital for treating the symptoms. Some may need medication for the rest of their lives (depending on the illness) and others only need it for a specific time. Nonetheless, medication is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean the person is crazy. It is no different from taking medication for high blood pressure or insulin for diabetes. Just like the body gets sick, the brain gets sick too, if you don’t take care of it. And no, this is not to say that everyone with a mental illness will need medication, but it is an invaluable help to many.
Myth #3: Black people don’t go to therapy.
Fact: Though there has been a deep-rooted stigma about seeking therapy, Blacks are increasingly seeking therapy for mental illness. Therapy is great whether you have a mental illness or not. Therapy helps you to work on yourself, dissect problems, face fears and overcome obstacles such as breakups, loss of a loved one, financial challenges, self-image issues, abuse, etc. As mentioned previously, blacks deal with oppression daily and therapy can help us work through it. Those who are still hesitant to try therapy can look into other ways of getting help. The support of a life coach has also been shown to be beneficial for many.
Myth #4: You can pray it away.
Fact: As a Christian, I have seen God perform miracles in my life. But when you say to a person “just pray,” you are assuming that they are not praying and dismissing how they feel, challenging the sincerity of their faith, and most likely preventing them from getting treatment. You would not say “just pray” to a person who broke a leg. You would tell them to go to the doctor for an x-ray and cast. We must treat mental illness the same. God also gives us resources to use on earth and sometimes that may be therapy and medication when a person is battling a mental illness.
Damian Waters is a marriage and family therapist in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he serves predominantly African American clients. On the issue of the stigma surrounding blacks seeking therapy, he says, “There’s some shame and embarrassment. You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”
As a way to honor those with mental illness, please think before you speak, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment. Mental illness is just as serious as any other disease and those affected by it should not be judged or outcast. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not a character flaw, or a white people problem.
Can you think of other myths surrounding Blacks and mental illness? Share them below along with your thoughts on putting the myths to rest once and for all.