I was in my kitchen a few months ago deep in conversation with family and friends about the challenges and fears of parenting college students. We talked about drugs and alcohol, social issues, and the job market.
And then we started to talk about mental health, and how anxiety and depression are truly public health issues that deserve more attention.
I was thankful for the presence of one friend, a public health educator, who is often my comrade when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental health. Being a black therapist is not always an easy place to be. As a community, black folks don’t really embrace psychotherapy as a valuable and often crucial part of their health. We often follow a mantra of “keep it moving,” when things are hard or comparing our personal struggle to the horrors of slavery and racism thus rendering depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or marital strife simply minor irritants that one can surely overcome with a little prayer and lot less whining.
But this particular friend has always been my partner in the unspoken battle to win over our little pocket of the black community to the benefits of therapy. So when my friend’s daughter shared that she had visited a therapist on campus I was thrilled—not because of the pain this young woman was experiencing, but because she felt comfortable talking openly about it with her parents and the rest of us in the room. My heart leapt with pride and hope about how far we had come in our attitudes toward mental health.
But then my friend, my partner in expanding our community’s view of mental health, said, “Why? You’re not white. And you don’t have any real problems. What do you have to go to therapy for? These suburban kids are so soft… you don’t know what problems are.”
I was silent—no small feat for me. As anyone who knows me will tell you, my passion for the value of therapy is often unbridled. If you want to see me ‘over-animated’ in conversation, tell me how silly/useless/frivolous/ineffective you think therapy and mental health are…and then take cover.
To be fair I see this kind of thing all the time. Couples who see me for marriage therapy are often adamant that their child doesn’t need therapy even when the symptoms are screaming out for help. And vice versa, I see parents willing to send a kid to therapy to work on “bad behavior” but refusing to work on their own adult issues that are at the root of the family’s chaos and pain.
These are common clinical issues that speak to a larger societal stigma that still exists. But there is a much deeper message when we say, “you’re not white” as if to say that therapy is not designed for you… for us. This is not a unique statement to my social circle; it is a pervasive message within Black America.
In the wake of a year that was fraught with examples of institutional and individual acts of intolerance, I can’t avoid the urgency to address the racist undertones that fuel the idea that black people don’t go to therapy. The inherent message in much of our indirect commentary on mental health is that therapy is for the weak, the self-indulgent, and, most notably, the privileged. And in this country black people are characterized as many things but never weak, self-indulgent, nor privileged.
No, those are things for “them” not us.
The collective story within Black American communities of strength and endurance has served generations in overcoming oppression, unfair laws, decreased opportunities, and more. But it is not a narrative that serves us in every area of life.
In my opinion, the resistance to and outright demeaning of mental health within the black community is the antithesis of everything that civil rights stands for.
Movements like Black Lives Matter, Because of Them We Can, and the Civil Rights movement boil down to one common denominator—humanity. Racism is a social construct that steals, diminishes, and destroys the humanity of the people it oppresses. How can someone brutalize, marginalize, and exploit another human being? Easy, they adopt a mindset that allows them to become blind to the humanity of that person or group.
Therapy, at its core, is the honoring and healing of the humanity within each of us. It is a personal space to be seen fully—good, bad, and ugly—and still be acknowledged as worthy of love and kindness. It is an intimate relationship where you can voice your fears, pains, doubts, and even triumphs knowing that the person sitting with you will treat your experience as important and valuable no matter how small or insignificant it may seem in the context of the larger society.
Therapy is a place to be human. And black people, like all people, need to feel human.
As Eddie Huang said in a recent NY Times article, “…people on the margins aren’t afforded the privilege of being complicated, whole, human beings in America; we have to create that existence ourselves.”
Therapy will not overtly cure racism. Embracing mental health issues will not make the pain of centuries of oppression go away. But it can, and it does, create more and more spaces to be whole, complicated, and human. Every time the black community dismisses, demeans, or disregards the role of mental health, we contribute to the very construct we want to end. Every time we dismiss someone’s depression or anxiety as unimportant in the face of police brutality we steal an opportunity to reclaim our humanity.
Every time we tell a seemingly healthy and successful young person that therapy is not for them because “we” don’t do that, we silently tell them the same thing that racism does—there is no room for you to be more than what we have already defined you to be. Stay in this box and stop searching for ways to expand into your full self.
Of course this is not the intended message. My family and friends who make comments about therapy being for white people or rich people or crazy people don’t mean to offend or marginalize. They often think they are encouraging or motivating the other person to be stronger or to see the positive side of things.
But the real strength is in recognizing that you deserve every opportunity to create happiness and health in your life. The real positive message is that you are fully human and there is a place you can go that allows you to express all of who you are without judgment. The real freedom from oppression is not in hiding our struggles but in owning them and having the courage to openly seek the tools and resources available to help us heal.
Everyone can benefit from therapy… especially black people.