Politics & Race
We Need To Talk About: The Black Mental Health Problem

Each Thursday NegusWhoRead will take on a different issue in our “We Need To Talk…” column.

I hate the word “crazy.”

I know people who dislike it because they feel it is a slur, like calling a mentally disabled person “retarded” or a physically disabled person “crippled.” I just think it’s lazy. People who don’t have access to a full vocabulary of adjectives, always refer to something exciting, weird, unexplainable or unsettling as “crazy.” Aside from being a linguistic Swiss army knife, we tend to use the word to describe a weakness or an incurable defect. Our daughters who lash out because they were molested, our friends who have panic attacks, our uncles with PTSD, our neighbors who suffer from schizophrenia are all swept under the “crazy” rug. We need to talk about it.

As Black America tries to tackle the myriad of issues that people of color face–individuals, organizations and publications have recently started focusing on healthy living. While it is admirable to see the surge of African Americans discussing diet, exercise and the need for regular doctors’ visits, there is another subject the community seems reluctant to explore. We cannot holistically address the well-being of Black people until we have an open, honest conversation about mental health.

Mental defects are treated like extraterrestrial life in Black communities–we know they might exist but we don’t really believe in them. A large percentage of African Americans–63%–believe “depression is a personal weakness.” Black people are so exponentially strong that we have been forced to stamp out the acknowledgement of any kind of fragility. We had to hide it for our survival.

I have lived with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder all my life. I have known it since I was a child but only began taking medication for it as an adult and it has changed my life. Imagine living your life with your brain going at one-and-a-half speed. While everything in your head is whizzing by you, the rest of the world is happening in slow motion. Imagine having knots in your stomach when you know you’re going to have to sit through a 52-minute class or a 2-hour church service. Imagine everyone thinks you’re just a “bad-ass kid” who talks too much, lacks self-control, has no discipline, forgets everything and doesn’t pay attention to any detail. Imagine they developed a pill that could level the chemical imbalance that caused all this. Imagine there was a pill that could slow down your brain, speed up the world and cure it all. Now imagine that everyone around you believed the cure was a few more ass-whippings, because those pills will “turn your kid into a zombie.” We need to talk about this.

Imagine waking up one day and you felt heavy. Imagine every morning you felt like you couldn’t physically get out of bed. Imagine the sunlight hurt and you only wanted darkness. Imagine that sickness began to slowly cast it’s shadow over your life, but people told you to suck it up. Imagine that feeling eventually made you think that the only rational answer was to slit your wrists or shoot yourself in the head. Imagine every doctor in the world would immediately know that you were suffering from chemical depression, but everyone else told you to pray about it. That this, too, will pass. That everyone has sad days. No one mentions a doctor. You can pray for a broken arm, but you still need a cast. That is what people who suffer from clinical depression go through. We need to talk about this.

While we laugh at Kanye’s antics, disbelieve Kehlani’s suicide and giggle at Katt Williams’ meltdowns, our reluctance to address the ickiness of mental health is causing the Black community to die from a terminal disease that everyone else has the cure for. While the suicide rates for every other group declines, the suicide rates among black boys more than doubled between 1993 and 2012but we won’t talk about it. Somewhere there is a genius black kid who could end up in jail, tossed into the pipeline that begins when teachers are three-and-a-half times more likely to punish black children for being disruptiveThere is a pill for it, but we won’t talk about it. Somewhere there is a young girl with a razor blade whose parents don’t know that depression is a curable chemical imbalance and not an emotion, but we don’t talk about it.

If we had a niece who broke her ankle when she was seven, we’d think it was criminal if she walked with a limp for the rest of her life because her parents didn’t take her to a hospital. We should talk about counseling that way. We know family histories of heart disease and diabetes, be we should talk about our family’s background with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia  that way. There are peer-reviewed scientific studies that show Black people experience more race-related stressors, resulting in higher blood pressure, health problems weight gain and… we should talk about this.

We had a valid excuse. Counseling, therapy and psychiatry can be expensive, and we couldn’t afford it. Many people aren’t aware that the Affordable Care Act covers mental health. That’s right, President Obama might be responsible for eliminating the stigma on addressing mental heath in the Black Community. There is no good excuse any more. You should tell someone. You should talk about that.

Here is something I’ve never discussed publicly. I did not sleep, for more than two hours at a time from February to June in 2003. Every time I tried, I would relive standing over my sister’s corpse moments after she was murdered. It took $88 dollars and four 45-minute counseling sessions to make by brain work right again. If I close my eyes and try to remember, I don’t think I can. Eighty-eight dollars.

All I had to do was talk about it.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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