We were honored to speak with Imade Nibokun, the founder and mental health social justice warrior of Depressed While Black. Through this platform, Imade has revolutionized the way young black people in America perceive mental health issues and to go beyond just “praying” it away. Imade has courageously opened up about her own trauma in hopes of encouraging other young black people to do the same. Here’s our eye-opening conversation with her.
The Tempest: How do you think counseling and mental health education can better incorporate best practices for black people in their curriculums?
Imade Nibokun: I have experienced mental health professionals telling me to do things that only made my situations worse. For example, when I was having suicidal thoughts in LA that probably would involve authorities, I was afraid to speak up. Not to mention, the Christopher Dorner incident happened in LA around that time. That meant a backlash against the black community. I do not need to go into the fears that I felt as a black person to talk to the police. When I reported that I was suicidal, the mental health professionals wanted to involve the police. They could not seem to understand the harm that this brings to black people more than anyone else.
Aside from stigma within the black community to seek mental health help, how do you think the popular culture in America contributes to this stigma?
The way mass shootings are presented in American media is that of a mentally ill lone-wolf. This is problematic because mentally ill individuals are more likely to become a victim rather than an attacker. In addition, there are major issues of self-medication of Xanax among young black musicians, especially in the rapper scene. Rappers take these pills to calm down.
This “chilled out” effect is especially a trend with a newer form, known as trap music. You can tell that some of these rappers are needing help, but it is really difficult to stop the party and say to them, “You are doing this because you are hurting.” These young people are so creative and talented. I actually see music as a great way to work through their mental health issues and express themselves. However, so much of the pain that can go to creative energy goes to self-medicating.
Could you talk about the stigma you faced after you shared some of your own mental health battles?
I attempted suicide in 2015. After that episode, my brother suggested that I had no reason to be depressed. After all, he would say, “I held you in my arms and changed your diaper”. What my example shows is that black families see mental illness through only themselves. Your family is personally offended when you self-harm and are concerned that it is a personal failure on their part. By asking for help, you are indirectly saying your family’s love is not good enough. Hence, it is challenging for black communities to accept that this may be a biological or behavioral condition that is not within the control of the family.
Systematically, I am cautious about utilizing mental health support. It is a delicate balance. As a black person, you get the help because you need it. However, you also know that help comes with a level of racism. In other words, you are still dealing with a wider system that is institutionally racist. I have noticed that the “dirty” work of the hospital goes to the black nurses. When it comes to the actual medicine, treatment, and therapy the power is back to the white doctors. That said, there are great black people in the mental health system though, but just not enough in authoritative positions.
How do you envision collaborating with churches in order to stop this idea of “praying it away”?
Black church leaders are on the frontlines of change, but pastors are not trained in mental health issues. According to them, God is everything. This kind of mindset creates a false deity where the pastor thinks he has all of the tools his congregants need. Mental health professionals should be talking at congregations, rather solely pastors. It takes a lot of humility of these pastors to say, “I don’t have these answers.” That said, in the black community, you have to make a space for spiritual wellness because it matters and connects to people.
In a saturated field of mental health professionals, how can we stop “whitewashing” it?
To even be a mental health practitioner is a privilege within itself. Most kids have not heard of a black therapist or counselor. Many times in school, a black counselor is a law enforcer or administrator. We can all imagine how well that works. As a black person, you are more likely to think about how much money it takes to go to school to be in this field. Who’s going to be mentoring you?
A lot of times these mentors are white, and they don’t understand black pain. If we can at least start by getting black kids to know mental health issues are something they can face too, it will start changing that pipeline. Peer group counselors, for example, are also a new wave in poor countries and for people who don’t have mental health infrastructure. While individualized therapy is ideal, it is not always logistically or financially practical. But it is better than not doing anything at all.
This conversation was edited lightly for clarity and length.