Angry Black Woman Syndrome. Resting Bitch Face. Stuck up. Stank ass hoe. Bougie THOT. These are terms commonly used to describe many sistahs with undiagnosed mental health needs. Angry. Aggressive. Violent. Low down dirty dog. Triffling ass ninja. Weak. These are terms used to describe brothas who may have a mental illness. Hyper. Bad ass. A lil special. These are the terms we use when we talk about our children with mental concerns.
We are quick to label unfamiliar or disturbing behavior in our community. It’s easy for us to isolate and dog-out people who can’t seem to control their actions. But why don’t we recognize when our loved ones need mental health treatment instead of abandonment? Why are we unnecessarily suffering instead of helping each other? Why do we deny that we face mental health challenges? The majority of black people I know refuse to acknowledge that mental conditions exist. That’s why the labels I just mentioned are so common. It’s time we acknowledge that mental health conditions exist in our homes and communities. Recognizing the impact of our mental health on our quality of life should motivate us to invest in our own wellness. Wellness is about our physical, mental and emotional health. There are two major mental illnesses that desperately need the black community’s attention: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Depression is very common but even more commonly ignored. We think of it as an intense of feeling of sadness but it’s symptoms rarely manifest solely that way. Sometimes behavior is a result of the sadness felt. Exhaustion to the point of being “tired of being tired” is depression. The statement is exemplary of people living in crisis-mode for too long. It’s burnout.
Self-isolation is also an indicator of depression, e.g., “no new friends, “keep my circle small.” This happens when we get hurt by others and don’t want to open ourselves to vulnerability again. Someone has violated our trust in the past and we don’t want to allow anyone to do that again. We find ourselves intentionally distancing ourselves from people.
I shouldn’t have to mention that depression shows up as promiscuity. Low self-esteem often compels us to be desired so we engage in high risk sexual behaviors to avoid feelings of loneliness. This applies to both men and women. So does displaying excessive aggression. People who fight all the time, bullies, often use anger as a means to control others. This control gives them temporary relief and the depression returns, usually when the individual is alone. Aggression is also turned inward and we self-mutilate. This includes cutting and burning ourselves. This allows us to feel something after the depression has numbed us for so long.
I do want to note that depression can hurt, physically and mentally. Psychosomatic problems like stomach aches, neck cramps, back pains can be triggered or escalated by depression. Depression can cripple us to the point that we neglect our hygiene, chores, parental responsibilities and basic needs.
Another mental condition plaguing black people is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We think of veterans of war when PTSD is mentioned, but those of us living in our nation’s urban cities experience just as much trauma as our combat troops. Some places, like Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans may see more violence than some of our troops. It is all too likely that we will be the victim of or witness a violent crime such as an assault, rape, or robbery just because we live in “da hood”. If not us directly, someone in all of our families and close friends are being br0utalized and murdered. Some of our loved ones are committing those atrocities. There’s no way we can avoid the effects of this vicarious trauma. Drug violence, gang violence, police shootings and situational incidents (e.g., drunken brawls, family violence, and domestic violence) plague the hood. The symptoms of PTSD often manifest in reciprocal violence, paranoia, reliving the violence, intense fear, and extreme distrust of other people. We become hypervigilant in our own homes. PTSD can cause severe personality changes at its worst.
Unfortunately, the climate of our country is making us increasingly vulnerable for mass violence. This results in mass depression, mass PTSD and other mental health disorders. People also go through life changes (loss of a loved one, loss of income, divorce, natural disaster, traumatic events) that affect our mental state. Traditionally, our community has turned turned to our closest friends and our faith to cope. While these methods are helpful, informal conversations and prayer is not mental health treatment.
When those traditional methods don’t work, we need to get a mental health checkup from a professional. If you or someone you love is in need of mental health treatment, contact the Black Psychiatrists of America, Inc., the Association of Black Psychologists, or the National Association of Black Social Workers to learn about cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy and pharmacology (medication). Your insurance provider can direct you to local professionals who can provide affordable mental health services such as counseling (when you talk to somebody) or psychiatric treatment (where you are examined and may be prescribed medication). If you don’t have insurance, your local community health provider should be able to assist you. Usually, you have to meet with a counselor a few times before they refer you to a psychiatrist. If you do decide to seek professional treatment, here are some things to remember:
- You have a right to request a provider that is the same race, sex, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation as you. However, you should know that sometimes agencies don’t have the capacity to honor your request (nobody like that work there). Therefore, you should at least request a provider who is culturally competent. Your health, physical and mental, is your own. You chose how you want to deal with it. You decide what course of treatment is best for you. It is often helpful to have a family member or close friend on your treatment team in addition to the health care provider. They can support you in between appointments by helping you implement the new skills you are learning and manage medications if necessary. Regardless, you should be comfortable with every individual on your health care team.
- Keep your appointments. If you can’t, reschedule or cancel within 24-hours. If transportation is a barrier, most health insurance plans offer transportation to medical and mental health appointments if you call in advance. Take advantage of that. If you miss too many appointments, they will discharge you or deny you access to specific services that would benefit you. That only means it will take longer for you to feel better.
- Take your medication as prescribed. It’s helpful to have a pill box to organize you medicine by day and times of dosage. That way you will know if you took it or not. If you don’t like the effects of the medication (you’re loopy, drowsy, sleep too much, headaches, nausea) after about two weeks, contact the provider. They can adjust the dosage or prescribe something else. It may take a while to find the correct medications for you so don’t give up. Plus, some of those medications should not be stopped without medical supervision. The doctor needs to taper you off of it. People give up too often before they figure out what works best for them.
- Taking care of your physical health is needed for optimal mental health. That means you need to eat nutritious food and exercise. You should see your primary physician often because certain medical conditions such as diabetes, anemia, and other chronic conditions can impact our moods and energy level. Learn about dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain. It regulates movement, emotions, and blood flow. It’s what makes mental health a medical condition.
- If you know someone who cannot function on their own due to their mental health needs (they are suicidal or homicidal), consider filing a petition to have them committed. The individual will be required to complete a three day psychiatric evaluation and gain some coping skills upon discharge. Ignoring mental health needs contributes to the deterioration of the individual, their family and communities. Don’t dismiss people who are “crazy” or “just like that.” They shouldn’t be homeless, arrested or beaten because they cannot control their behavior. They have a mental condition and it can be managed. Call 1-800-273- TALK (8255) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you or someone you know is thinking about committing suicide. Suicidal people often think that they’re relieving their loved ones of the agony of dealing with their mental condition. They do not recognize the eternal void that they leave for their loved ones or that they are giving up the chance to feel better in the future. Life is already too short to feel that way. That’s why you have to look out for one another. Even if you don’t have a mental health disorder, being able to respond when you recognize the signs and symptoms can save a life.