The stigma around mental health is pretty thick. It’s even thicker within Black communities. Growing up in Jamaica, I noticed that mental health was almost never spoken about. While living in both the U.S and Canada, I have met others who could attest to the same thing. However, as I’ve advanced further into my studies, I’ve found new ways to explore these stigmas and am actively working alongside my peers to ensure that more discussions like these are happening. Below are two of many stigmas attached to mental health within the Black community:

“Black people do not suffer from mental health issues in the same way other races, especially their white counterparts, do.

I’ve heard many variations of this sentence before. The hyper-masculinity ascribed to Black men help to create a false sense of immunity to mental illness and vulnerability. It’s stigmas like this that make it less inviting for Black people, particularly our men, to talk openly about their feelings. On top of the more common economic, personal, and social stresses that come with being a provider, Black men have to deal with racism and microaggressions that their white counterparts do not. Police brutality, the re-emergence of white supremacist hate groups and the overuse of terms like ‘thug’ to incriminate their existence, are just a few social triggers that can threaten mental well-being among Black men. Regardless of whether a Black man gives into the false notion of inferiority, he exists in a world where many people harbour hostility towards him, whether they do so subconsciously or with full intent.

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Though Therese Brochard, a contributor on Psych Central, mentions it is more acceptable for women to show vulnerability, social labels such as “the strong Black woman” and the double burden of facing racism and sexism illicit a source of resilience in Black women that often result in us neglecting our own emotions and needs.

Both men and women of color undergo their own struggles, but without a healthy outlet and support system, the result often materialize into failed relationships and broken homes, leaving a disproportionate amount of Black women having to serve as both caregivers and breadwinners. Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s book Shifting: Double Lives of Black Women in America, speaks to the notion that Black women have adapted to finding “humor in heartache.” This coping mechanism is harmful if not coupled with a more direct way of addressing issues. Dr. Monica Coleman, a Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, reported that during her depressive episode, a friend attempted to downplay this experience by remarking, “We are the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery. Whatever you’re going through cannot be that bad.”

Let it be known that today, exposure to racism and discrimination is an added stressor to both men and women. The Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities in the UK reported that “those who had experienced a racist attack were nearly three times more likely to suffer from depression and five times more likely to suffer from psychosis. Those who said their employers were racist were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from psychosis.” Often times when those who are targeted speak out, they are commended on their resilience, but the extent of the damage caused on the targets either emotionally or mentally, is not as commonly spoken about as it should be. These studies help to show that experiencing racism can take a serious toll on mental health.

“Slavery was a long time ago….get over it”

I’ve also heard different variations of this, even from Black people. While it is important to question the modern day devices that influence mental health, without any historical context, there is no big picture! If we are going to talk about poverty and socioeconomic barriers, it is important to acknowledge the legacy of enslavement and intergenerational trauma as factors that play into Black mental health.

People need to understand that just as how it is unethical to ask someone to forget the Holocaust or forget about 9/11, it is just as unethical to suggest that one should forget about slavery. It is not a matter of dwelling on the past but a matter of acknowledging that it exists in order to move towards a place of healing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that undiagnosed childhood trauma serves as the root cause of mental health and behavioral problems in adulthood. If we apply this same notion to the history of physical, mental, and systematic oppression, faced by Black people, then we can understand the value in acknowledging our past.

Something that has stuck with me for years is that in order to solve a problem you have to understand that there is a problem in the first place. Discourse is a powerful tool because it eventually translates into action. The way we think and talk about mental wellness will influence the way we deal with issues around mental illness.

A group that I co-lead called the Future Black Physicians at UTSC is actively trying to break some of the silence around mental health in our Black community. A lot of the time, it feels like the elephant in the room, but my team and I have gotten the opportunity to hear so many different perspectives on why mental illness is not taken as seriously in the Black community from students here on campus. In general, I’d say people have a lot to say about it, but often times it just takes someone to reach out and start the conversation. This is the first step to reducing the stigma.

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