When I was a child I had a set of quirks. I couldn’t knock on doors, use the phone or meet important people without heavy breathing, much foot dragging, and sweating. I also couldn’t enter crowded rooms, talk to people, or stop counting to 5. And, many many more random things. My family and friends simply adjusted around me, teased me and told me to grow up. As I grew older, it became harder to talk, look people in the eyes, or message people. By college I’d turned into a shaking, worried, sleepless mess. A few years pass, and I finally work up the courage to see a therapist about something unrelated. After a while of coming into session and not being able to look at her, she mentioned that maybe I had anxiety. I laughed, I was just weird…. But I didn’t have an…. Illness?
In my family no one had considered that I might be genuinely struggling. Additionally no one seemed to know the signs of illnesses. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, were all words for white people. Never was this said, but just known. A white person can have mental illnesses a black person needs to just deal with their issues (or let GOD do it) and not be “weak”. The simple fact is that black families don’t handle mental health in the same way as our white american counterparts. I have no full answers why this is, but I think it’s important to explore a few ideas.
On a whole black Americans don’t label as much as white Americans. Black Americans tend to be more religious and superstitious than white Americans. And most importantly black and white Americans invest in themselves and ideas very differently. One has a scarcity mindset while the other does not. Lastly racism. The big unseen factor in why black Americans treat mental health so differently. These ideas all contribute to this important issue.
Clearly black families love their children as much as white Americans, but when it comes to labeling and medicating their children, Black families are just less likely to do it. Often times black families have one master plan for ALL physical illness no matter the cause. “Go lay down” many physical illnesses can be fixed or overcome with rest. If it’s something specific say, the stomach flu or a sprain they add something to help such as ginger ale or ice respectively. Back in high school the H1N1 was going around and everyone within my family except me was struck with it or a cold. They all had different symptoms and abilities to get over it, but as the caretaker the remedy was pretty much, wait it out and don’t die of dehydration. After a few days I too started feeling ill. Unsure of what to do, I put myself to bed and the next morning I felt tons better. None of us ever went to the doctor to be sure of what we had. Sadly when it comes to mental illness many black families just don’t know. So, they do the best they can.
If your young child won’t eat anything but red things, way into an age that is unacceptable and throws fits, a white family may have their child checked for autism. That child will undergo tests, get a label and a comprehensive plan to make that child “acceptable.” From then on that child isn’t a kid, but an autistic (add, adhd, anxious, ect) kid. In many black families they often just simply accept the child as is until later in life. Sometimes“When Sherry was growing up, she had a cousin who the family thought of as “different,” she says. “He was basically hidden. We didn’t talk about it as a community.” He had autism.”
In many cases the family does their best with the symptoms and often just think of children and adults with mental illnesses as “ different” and accommodate their needs. Suzie with autism becomes Shauna who only eats red, hates weird textures and sometimes rocks. Dan with schizophrenia, is just uncle John who talks to himself. While Sarah with anxiety, is just weird Lasandra who freaks out over little things. On one hand there is something beautiful about the community (often) trying to accept people at where they are, but sometimes it can be a problem as children grow into adults. Some families expect their children to outgrow it and grow frustrated when they can’t, they can become frustrated when the family member doesn’t just “get better” or “get over it”. So they look towards God as a solution.
Many MANY black families are christian. When families realize their child is strange or hasn’t outgrown their oddities, many Elders suggest turning towards God. As a culture goes Black culture can be superstitious. I assume because of our African ancestors. So many older black Americans believe that mental illness is God’s wrath, has to deal with sin, or the “inflicted” hasn’t prayed enough. This puts great pressure on not only the person in question but also the family. It the “shame” of having a mental illness and puts the blame on the family or individual. If they had… If you… Are you praying?…. Have you given yourself to God… it’s because you sinned…. Ect. Not only can this cause more issues but causes tension surrounding and within the individual. The issue isn’t having faith but also not acknowledging the power of acceptance and understanding what a mental illness is and that it’s no one’s fault. Many individuals don’t feel seen or cared about.
So, why don’t these Americans get their children the help they need. Sadly, tradition. Historically, There haven’t been many options for black Americans to address mental health. The idea has always been to pray to God and try your best to be accommodating. In this country mental health is expensive in more ways than one. Not only is it hard for everyone but many black Americans simply can’t afford it, don’t trust doctors, can’t take off the time, think it’s a waste, and often operate in a scarcity mindset. It comes out of slavery in part. It’s easy to see when you look at the culture’s food. Waste not, want not. So it can be hard for many black Americans to invest in the long term. The idea that it could all be taken away has been past down through the ages. So more often not only are many of us less well off but the culture is still very present minded and not future minded. It’s so much more feasible to pray to God, almighty to help than it is to scrape together money for a visit to a doctor. Then by the time the priority is on diagnosis the time has already past, or been severely delayed. Then there is racism. Oh racism. Say a black parent does take their child to the doctor because they aren’t doing the things they expect. It’s harder to be diagnosed. Doctors often misdiagnosis mental illnesses for bad behavior. Then if it is diagnosed there is often a stronger stigma placed on them. There are the systematic ways that make it difficult for black parents to get their children tested and a lack of education around mental illness makes it hard to talk about within the black community.
Add in that many of the homeless in this country/and in jail are blacks with mental illnesses, it creates a vicious cycle. A cycle that can easily cause disruptions in white society which is considered irredeemable. Compare that to the way society treats white Americans with mental illnesses and the chasm is disturbing. Even with the poor way people in this country handle mental health there is a vast difference between white and black mental health in society’s eyes. On one hand a “mental ill” white mass shooter deserves to be taken in unharmed. But black children with personality disorders are suspended from school. The white man that is muttering to himself may be avoided at a distance but a black man doing the same thing will be seen as a threat and arrested by the police. A white girl with depression is brave and black woman is lazy. And THEN mental health professionals often don’t know black culture well enough, nor have enough data to be helpful. All of their material is for the presentation and treatment of white american versions of the same conditions. Even though the coping mechanisms, basic beliefs, way of interacting with the world, are all totally different.
If you are a white american whose been in therapy did you ever feel you had to explain something basic about your culture to your therapist? Probably not. Black Americans have to do this all the time, creating a barrier between trust and understanding. We’ve talked on this site before about the misconceptions that come up when assuming one culture is exactly like one you are used to. It skews the data to possible be something that it isn’t. Naturally young people of this generation are trying to become educated, break the stigma and be open about their mental health. For the black community this is slow going. With so many things working against us it’s no surprise that many black Americans have undiagnosed mental illnesses. It’s hard for our culture to know how to help those in need, with limited information, money, and pressure from the mainstream culture to consistently perform. So, we don’t take the time to fully address mental health in our communities. We must move beyond this myth that mental illnesses are just a white american thing and start taking care of us.