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POC Parents and Mental Health: Destroy the Stigma

“You used to be so active and happy.”

“You’re just being lazy.”

“It’s a phase. Just get over it.”

These were phrases that I heard a lot growing up. Most of the time from my own parents. Depression hit me hard at the ripe age of 13, as far as I can remember.  But it wasn’t until my late teens that I had a name for it, and my 20th birthday that I began to seek help for it.  

However, it’s played a pretty large role in my life, bleeding its way into everyday like an uncapped Sharpie on white carpet. But for the good majority of my adolescence, it went by unacknowledged. Well, less unacknowledged and more incognito, being misidentified as “laziness” or “an attitude” by my mother.

In my mother’s defense, it’s easy to make that mistake. Seeing your once straight A earning daughter not turning in assignments and sleeping ‘til noon could be perceived as some warped teenage rebellion.

I also didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what I was feeling. To 13-year-old me, mental illness wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t talk to myself or hear voices. By the inaccurate definition of mental illness I had in my head, I was completely healthy. I thought of depression as a fleeting emotion and not a prolonged state of being.

It was a long continuous cycle of guilt. Every time I thought “You’re a lazy piece of sh*t. You won’t do anything with your life. Why are you like this?” My mother would come right in behind me asking the same thing, validating that ugly, little monster inside of me, tricking me into thinking it was true and that it was all my fault.

But the kicker is my experience isn’t even that uncommon. Fast forward a few years to my sophomore year of college. I’m sitting at the counter of my shared kitchen with my roommate, who is also a black woman who deals with mental illness. We began to talk about our own experiences when things got really familiar. The comments, invalidation, guilt, it was nearly identical.

We were both shocked and began to ask around, finding more and more black adults who also expressed shockingly similar sentiments about their own parent and experiences. So, I took my search to the internet. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist, addresses the topic of mental illness, particularly depression and suicide, as seen in the black community in an NPR interview.

“There’s a wall of silence about depression and suicide in the black community,” Poussaint said. “I think it goes beyond stigma. Many African-Americans, perhaps more than white Americans, see being depressed as a personal weakness, and then many of them don’t see it as a health problem at all. They see it as something that occurs in life. After all, black people invented the blues, which is now a substitute term or synonym for depression among many people.”

According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health, African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than their white counterparts, African Americans are also more likely to have feelings of hopelessness and sadness than white Americans.   

But despite this, the stigma remains. According to Poussaint, it’s cultural.

“I think racism and the legacies associated with slavery and discrimination have produced and continue to produce additional stress for black Americans,” Poussaint said. “Any type of stress, emotional stress, can make you more vulnerable to getting all kinds of mental disorders or make many of them more severe than they ordinarily would be.”

According to Poussaint, this constant strife that has been associated with the black community has normalized misery, dating generations and generations before. When misery is expected, mental illness such as depression and anxiety are trivialized.

But it’s time for us as a community to break the cycle and to start making mental health a priority in both our and our children’s lives.

According to medical professionals, cohort effects (exposure to mental illness and knowledge of mental illness), are factors that will potentially change beliefs about symptoms associated with mental disorders.

My own journey with my mother, while still having a long way to go, has drastically improved. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that there’s a problem to begin with.

You wouldn’t ignore a physical ailment, so why ignore a mental one?

Here are some resources to learn more about mental illness. Never forget to get help if you feel that you’re exhibiting symptoms.

Resources- National Institute of Mental Health, MentalHealth.gov, “81 Awesome Mental Health Resources When You Can’t Afford a Therapist.”

Photo Credits: cover 12

Keziah is a writer for Her Campus. She is majoring in Fashion Design with a minor in Fashion Merchandising. HCXO!
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