Breaking Down the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Black Community

The stigma and silence surrounding mental illness in the black community might keep you from getting the treatment you need. Below, we discuss how creating your own narrative by accepting your illness, and seeing how others are opening up the conversation can help you access culturally relevant treatment and find healing.

There is no doubt that the deep cultural stigma surrounding mental illness prevents millions of people worldwide from getting the support they need. In recent years, however, there has been a widespread push to bring mental health disorders out of the shadows through public education and awareness campaigns that seek to break through the secrecy and shame that too often haunt mental illness. From celebrities speaking out about their own experiences with psychiatric distress to ordinary people sharing their journeys through social media, inroads are being made and conversations are being sparked. But the stigma of mental illness doesn’t affect everyone equally.

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Stigma and Silence in the Black Community

Christina Bolden struggled with depression in silence for years. As a college student, she didn’t eat, her weight dropped, her sleep was irregular, and she isolated herself from friends, all hallmarks of depression. But Boden’s withdrawal from those closest to her wasn’t just a symptom of her illness; it was also spurred, in part, by the shame and confusion she felt as a black woman in a culture without existing narratives of “black” mental illness. “Mental health or mental illness is rarely discussed within the black community. In the black community, mental illness is thought of as a ‘white person’s disease,’” she writes. Despite the statistic that black people are 20% more likely to suffer from mental illness due to a host of psychosocial factors, psychiatric illness remains taboo.

The stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community is heavy as black people feel as though choosing to seek professional help, such as a therapist, is a sign of weakness. It is not a topic that is talked about amongst friends or family.

Bolden believes that the reluctance to discuss mental illness is driven in part by the complex and traumatic history of African Americans in the United States. “Black people tend to feel as though their suffering is a normal and expected outcome given our history from slavery to present.” According to writer Phoebe Gavin, the stigma is exacerbated by the cultural reluctance to air personal struggles in public. “Within the black community, there is a lot of shame associated with having inner pain. Being ‘strong’ is valued. Concepts of ‘putting things on front street’ or ‘keeping things in the family’ […] really keep people who are having issues from getting real help.”

Creating Your Own Narrative

Zeba Blay, who has anxiety and Bipolar II Disorder, agrees with these assessments. While she notes that it is important to not see the black community as a monolith, “there’s no denying that in some pockets of the black community, stigma still exists.” As a teenager growing up with emerging mental illness, she did not have access to conversations about psychological struggles within her own family or community. When she looked to pop culture to make sense of her emotions, she quickly discovered that the landscape of mental illness in media was overwhelmingly white. “I was struck by how few black women in the public eye were openly dealing with depression. I felt like I had no point of reference for what I was going through.”

The representations of black womanhood that were available to her, while often empowering, didn’t include mental health disorders. They didn’t include therapy sessions or mood stabilizers; instead they encouraged silence and framed asking for help as weakness.

There are many stereotypes and narratives imposed upon black women, and perhaps the most pervasive is the ‘Strong Black Woman’ trope. Black women are strong, but sometimes we’re taught to believe that because of that strength there’s no room for vulnerability. Going through something? Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep moving forward. Swallow your pain and put on a brave face.

In the absence of pre-existing narratives into which to fit her experiences, Blay had to create her own and, in doing so, set the stage for her own healing. “Something brilliant happened when I finally began to acknowledge and speak out about my struggles,” she says. “By writing through my experience and talking with friends, I met countless other black women in the same boat. I realized that I am not alone. And that, in and of itself, has been an amazing step towards healing.”

Opening Up the Conversation

While personal disclosure is vital to spurring conversations that will ultimately dismantle the stigma of mental illness, true change requires more than private action; it requires public advocacy. It requires disrupting the idea of mental illness as a “white person’s disease” and showing what black mental illness looks like. Already such efforts are underway, with general organizations such as NAMI and specialized advocacy groups like Ourselves | Black increasingly promoting mental health awareness within the black community. “There’s still a long way to go before black people become comfortable, open, and accepting of the thought of mental illness as well as talking about it in comfortable places such as barbershops and family functions,” Bolder says. “[But] I think that once black people are more educated on mental illness as well as therapy it will be easier for it to be talked about in the black community.”

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Accessing Culturally Relevant Treatment

Ideally, increased awareness and openness about mental illness within the black community, as well as within any other community struggling with the stigma, will open up avenues for individuals to seek the care they need to recover. To optimize the efficacy of that care, however, treatment must be tailored to the unique circumstances of each person. Blay writes:

It’s been found that there can often be a correlation between racism and depression and anxiety in people of color, with some scientists even finding a link between racism and post-traumatic stress. For black women especially, rates of mental illness are higher simply because we stand at the intersections of race and gender. And it doesn’t have to be overt. Sometimes just being the only black person in predominantly white spaces can be emotionally taxing.

Working with clinicians who understand the complex interplay between race and mental health can ensure that your treatment experience addresses the full scope of your needs. In doing so, you can reach a deeper understanding of the internal and external obstacles standing in the way of your recovery and develop the skills to remove them in a way that is meaningful for you.

At Bridges to Recovery, we are committed to providing the highest level of care for all people struggling with mental illness. In our residential program, we seek to deliver culturally relevant treatment that nurtures each person’s individual strengths while recognizing the impact psychosocial factors have had on your lived experiences and your emotional well-being. Because we believe that everyone living with mental illness deserves access to effective treatment, we also make ourselves available to offer any guidance you may need to find the kind and quality of care you need, regardless of whether or not you become a Bridges client. Together, we can work to create brighter, healthier futures and more fulfilling lives.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use and eating disorders. Contact us for more information about our renowned program or for any guidance you may need to help yourself or your loved one heal from the pain of mental illness.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user myquiel burton