We Need to Discuss Mental Health in the Black Community

By Jared Ellison 03/17/21

It’s not easy to lament about a bad day at work when you know that your ancestors experienced being whipped and chained.

Image: 
Black man sitting on a bench, head in hands, depressed or upset
This aversion to therapy stems partly from a long history of black people's voices being silenced and feelings invalidated. Photo 177762638 © Info723783 | Dreamstime.com

“How are you feeling?”
“What self-care have you done today?”
“Have you considered going to a therapist?”

These questions are not often circulated within the black community. That’s because the topic of mental health is as taboo as talking about money at social gatherings or discussing politics on a first date. For many black people the idea of therapy is a foreign concept. Even informal discussions about one’s emotional wellbeing amongst family or friends is something that does not come easy for black people. As a young African-American man, I have seen this aversion first hand and have even shared the same hesitancy about being open about my own feelings. Recently, I’ve pondered over the reasoning behind the resistance to mental health discussions and talk therapy in the black community. I’ve come to the conclusion that several factors, both internal and external, have contributed to this phenomenon. While the observations I am going to share do not capture the full scope of the relationship between mental health and the black community, they do highlight the role history, culture, and society have in creating this strained relationship.

From slavery to racial profiling, history has left many black people scarred and the toll from these physical scars leaves little room for processing the emotional wounds that come out of these events. It’s not easy to lament about a bad day at work when you know that your ancestors experienced being whipped and chained. It makes whatever internal emotions black people are feeling seem insignificant in comparison to the painful scars of their ancestry. Even in the present day, when a black person is brutalized, the focus is generally centered on that person’s physical injuries rather than the mental trauma they underwent. Overcoming this adversity has enamored the black community with a “push through the pain” mentality which gets passed down from generation to generation. In many black households, the idea of being emotionally transparent is unheard of because older generations kept their emotions bottled up, making concepts like therapy often a foreign subject in a majority of black families.

This aversion towards therapy equally stems from a long history of black people not being listened to when they talk about their problems. Studies have shown that black patients have higher rates of poor health outcomes in comparison to white patients; this is due to many white doctors being dismissive of the concerns black patients raise about their health. This dismissive attitude is not isolated to only the medical community; there is a litany of situations where black people have felt their voices were being silenced or feelings invalidated. When we protest, we’re told we’re doing it the wrong way, when we highlight a double standard, we’re accused of playing the “race card,” when we say “Black Lives Matter,” we’re met with “All Lives Matter.” This continuous back-and-forth of us expressing our hardships and then being told that it’s not real, eventually makes some black people stop trying to have the conversation. Why would we sit on a couch and confide in someone when history has shown us that it might fall on deaf ears? Or worse, we might be told that we are our own problem. Talking to a black therapist might be easier for some because there is a sense of trust and camaraderie but even that is a challenge due to a lack of accessibility. Finding therapists of color, much like finding medical doctors of color, can be a difficult process.

So where do we go from here? How do we rewrite history and unravel the crippling stigmas about mental health in the black community? The truth is, we cannot change the past, we only have control over our future and it will take a lot of time and patience before black families can have an open dialogue about therapy and mental health. But that still leaves the question: how are black people supposed to handle their emotional trauma in the meantime?

Before I delve into my solution, I feel that I must address ways in which the black community can evolve and have more open discussions about mental health topics. First, people have to unlearn certain behaviors and replace them with more positive ones. Negative actions like telling boys not to cry or reciting mantras like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” encourage black people to internalize their feelings, which leads to detrimental results. If you find yourself participating in this kind of behavior, stop yourself and allow the person who's vulnerable to confide in you; be a listening ear. If you see someone dismissing another black person’s feelings, stop them and redirect them into having a more respectful and considerate dialogue. I am well aware that this is easier said than done. It is very challenging to correct someone else’s behavior, especially if they are older than you. Remember, what you say is just as important as how you say it. If you are equally thoughtful about your tone as well as your words, you are more likely to get a receptive response. It also becomes a lot easier with time and the more frequently you do it.

Another important step is directed towards people outside of the black community. If you have a black friend, co-worker, or partner, be mindful of your responses when they talk to you about what is troubling them. If they want to talk about what’s bothering them, listen without interruption and avoid any language that could be dismissive or insensitive. It is also best not to say that the struggles they are facing are exactly like the ones you face. The challenges white women face are not the same as the challenges black women do; just like the struggles of a gay man are not the same as the ones of a black gay man. Trying to unify and say you and a black person are experiencing the exact same thing belittles the unique experiences black people face; experiences you can’t relate to but ones you can be a supportive listener for. Again, this is not easy and takes a lot of time and patience, but the results will be gratifying for all parties involved.

I’d be naive to believe that the advice I laid out would be immediately followed by the masses. I am well aware that many will not take my advice, either out of fear or complacency, and even if they do, it will take a long time for significant change to be seen within the black community. In the interim, what I say to members of the black community who want an outlet but can’t go to therapy because of the factors I’ve discussed: Write about what is bothering you. Journaling can be incredibly cathartic and there is no wrong way to do it; it’s your world and you get to decide the rules. There’s a sense of safety and trust on the page and you’re given the liberty to express yourself freely without fear of judgement or dismissal. Everybody in life struggles, but the pain you feel becomes exponentially easier to handle once you let it out. In a perfect world, black people would be able to discuss their mental health without such major hurdles, but until then, writing can provide a much-needed solace.

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Jared Ellison is an editorial intern at Eclipse Lit  and a senior English Major with a concentration in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. He has a passion for writing and loves to discuss a wide-range of literature from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison to Angie Thomas. After graduation, he plans to work in the publishing industry. In his free time you can find him reading a good book, watching something on Netflix, or pondering what is going on in his cat’s head.