It’s no secret that there is a stigma in the Black community about mental health, particularly among immigrants.
Depression affects women of color exponentially. The only difference is that many Black women aren’t encouraged to be open about their mental health problems.
We are taught that happiness is a decision and depression is a choice.
Even worse, it can feel as though our parents see us as trophies, extensions of themselves. So when we tell them that something is “different” about us, whether we’re struggling with our mental health or our sexuality, it is seen as a personal slight to them. We are pushed to spend a lot of energy into keeping up appearances and any dissent is approached with skepticism.
It seems like I’ve lived the majority of my life in dissent. The feeling of being an outsider in my own community left me longing for acceptance in the wrong ways. It created constant feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. Combine this with the confusion of being emotionally ostracized at home, this created a concoction of mental health issues. This has been a part of my life for so long that it became the norm.
The topic of mental illness was never addressed in my home. In African immigrant households, we are perceived as weak when we have issues with our mental or emotional health. Because of this, we tend to bottle up our emotions until they implode in an unhealthy way.
As a young child, my first experience with mental health was seeing the aftermath of my brother’s mental health being ignored for years. My brother kept all his negative emotions and confusion brewing inside him for so long that he lashed out at my father one day during an argument. My family was in shock, watching my brother break down while my father was impossibly perplexed at this reaction.
As a seven-year-old, I was intuitive enough to know that there was more to this picture. The Black man is expected to be the rock of the family and the woman is the foundation that balances everything. But none of us knew how to deal with a situation like this. We never knew how to let ourselves be fragile or emotional. Resistance to vulnerability had been ingrained in our DNA. So instead, we disregarded the incident and till this day, we never speak of it.
My parent’s upbringing contributed greatly to their parenting style. My mother and father lived through the brutal Biafran War in Nigeria in the late ’60s. My mother saw her family attacked by rebels and her home destroyed.
This is was what she knew growing up. She had to be a rock, for her family’s sake. It was how she survived.
So who am I to feel sorry for myself? Why am I so special? I fought my depression with thoughts like if my mother and father could stay strong through such turmoil, why couldn’t I just suck it up and live my life?
I don’t blame my parents for any of it; it’s all they knew. That’s just the way things were. We were expected to be strong. Part of me thanks them every day for instilling that toughness in me. But other parts of me still longs for that affection. What is the point of life, if not, to try to be happy?
Today, I’m finishing my college career. It wasn’t until I experienced trauma I felt I couldn’t handle on my own, that I used campus resources to reach out for help.
The psychiatrist heard my story while I sat hoping for validation of my feelings. I didn’t understand what I was feeling until he mentioned that pesky word, “depression”. I was in complete denial; there was no way that could be me. I asked, is there a medical reason for this? He said it could be from a thyroid imbalance, it could also be caused by environmental factors.
I had thyroid tests done, with normal results. Now there was no one else to blame but myself. Maybe I should have said something to someone earlier? I felt lost and ashamed. There was no way I could share this with anyone.
But I was finally able to put a name to the mental health issues that plagued my family in secret.
It’s called Dysthymic Disorder, a chronic form of depression in which sufferers think it is simply part of their personality or culture, rather than suspecting they may be suffering from a disease.
It was terrifying, but fortunately for me, was exposed to open conversation on mental health through initiatives like Elyse Fox’s #SadGirlsClub.
They say acceptance is the first step, and now I feel more prepared to fight this battle and to help other young women fight as well. I realized that it is important in life to acknowledge the bad with the good, instead of ignoring the sad and faking the happy.