Thrive on Campus//

Breaking the Stigma Within the POC Community

My personal experiences have taught me about the perceptions of mental health among people of color.

Image supplied courtesy of Mental Health Consultations, LLC: http://www.anthonypennant.com/interests/

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Hello again, Thrive Global community. 

It’s me, the brown college girl who has an affinity for puns, has a hard time using Lime scooters, and suffers from depression and anxiety. 

Throughout my experiences with mental illness (most of which have really played out within the past year — also my freshman year at Georgetown), I’ve come to realize one thing about talking about mental illness: It’s a very touchy subject within the community of people of color. 

While I’ve only been vocal about how horrible my mind can be to me recently, I’ve been dealing with mental illness since at least middle school. I’d stress over the smallest things and get into small bouts of depressive episodes (something I didn’t realize until now), which usually culminated into me crying myself to sleep. 

I was always taught by parents that it was shameful to cry in public and being a sensitive person in general, I tended to cry a lot growing up, leading to frequent scoldings. This led to this association that crying was perhaps a bad thing, and I’d get horribly embarrassed if I was unable to hold back the waterworks in front of a group of people. 

So when I cried myself to sleep, I scolded myself for being dramatic, telling myself that these down periods were nothing serious, just me being temporarily whiny. 

This mentality would prevail until 11th grade when I was told by my friends that it was ok to cry. For most, this is not a surprise; for me, it had changed my world. All these years, I had viewed crying to be an inappropriate action, so when I was told that it was acceptable to express my emotions in this manner, I felt liberated. 

After that, I became more in tune with my emotions, leading me to realize that these down-spells and bouts of anxiety were not normal; they were the manifestation of a monster that lived in my mind. 

Talking to my parents about this was not exactly easy. While my mother was the one who suggested I attend therapy before I left for college, she saw the issue mostly related to anxiety. I recall in one conversation where she vehemently denied that I dealt with depression, unintentionally invalidating my past experiences, many of which she did not know about. 

It was for this reason that I hid the fact that I was dealing with frequent panic attacks when I went to college from my parents. I waited until I was considering going on medication, only because I was on my father’s health insurance. 

While they ultimately supported me and wished for a speedy recovery, they failed to grasp what was really going on. They were always looking for a reason for why I got anxious or sad, even though these emotions would often appear for no reason at all. For my father, it made no sense that these were things I felt considering that I lived such a good life and that I was doing well in school. 

On top of that, their backgrounds as practicing doctors led them to always believe it was something hormonal, something that could be deduced from a set of blood tests.  

It was especially difficult for my mom to accept that I also was depressed, perhaps because she felt guilty for not seeing these symptoms earlier within me. In a meeting with my therapist back home, she was pressed to find out whether it was the anxiety causing the depression or the other way around, hoping to ease her mind by finding out that it was my anxiety (something that ran in the family) led to my depressive symptoms. 

She continues to say that I suffer “largely from anxiety, less from depression,” a statement that used to rub me the wrong way but I’ve now come to accept because I feel as though she says this largely for her comfort, not myself. 

I should say that this article is not meant to criticize my parents; I know that at the end of the day, they want me to live the best life and would do anything to make that happen. I remember talking to my mother on the phone the day after I suffered a night filled with raging suicidal thoughts and hearing her voice breaking up as she cried, “A mother is only as happy as her saddest child.”

I know that I am loved and supported and how fortunate I am to have such support. This article was instead intended to demonstrate the misconceptions that prevailed in my family but on a grander scale, to people of color. 

Hold on a second. This feels like a massive generalization; how can she use her experience with her parents to make this broad statement of how people of color view mental illness?

Yes, this is quite the jump. However, the things my parents have said regarding mental illness have been heard by my other POC friends from their families. My best friend’s father denies that mental illness is a legitimate concern. Another one of my friends has witnessed her parents call her older sister “stupid” and “dramatic” because she was unable to calm down during a panic attack. Yet another one of my friends has yet to tell her parents that she has been hospitalized due to her depression because she feels that they would not understand. 

These examples are just a few of some of the pushbacks against mental illness that I’ve heard from people of color. 

And it’s not just limited to one community. The friends whose experiences I’ve referenced don’t come from a specific race or ethnicity but instead a wide variety. 

Somehow, a larger than life stigmatization of mental illness prevails in the POC community, more so than within the community of white individuals. 

This is further supported by reactions to the mental health struggles of rappers Kid Cudi and Kanye West. In his song “One Bird, Two Stones,” Drake dissed Kid Cudi for his mental health struggles, something that did not blow over well with fans.

Moreover, social media hasn’t been always kind to the Kanye while he’s dealt with bipolar disorder. While his infamous comments that he’s made over time, especially his recent tweets (calling slavery a choice was more than just a little problematic), were undoubtedly questionable and controversial, media speculations as well as comments from Twitter users regarding his mental illness were at times inappropriate. 

While West does not appear to be extremely offended by these remarks considering how open he is about discussing his bipolar disorder, as seen in his newest album ye, there exists a problematic element for mocking hip-hop stars, the majority of whom are black men, for struggling with mental illness. 

All of these experiences, from my own to those of others, I reference returns back to this idea of a lack of understanding within the POC community, an issue that has the danger of preventing POC individuals of not speaking up about their mental struggles or seeking treatment. 

It’s because of this that I wish to share my experiences with others, not to be preachy or paint myself the victim, but to show that I have a very vulnerable side to myself, hopefully encouraging others to do the same.

While I have no expectations that me speaking out my battle with mental illness will help to chip away at this strong stigma among POCs, perhaps I can help my family reach a greater understanding regarding mental illness, a task I was not afraid to take on since I am the only one currently taking medication to help me cope with these issues. 

Because it’s largely an internal battle and is still greatly misunderstood, mental illness continues to be stigmatized across the globe; however, it appears that this stigma occurs to a lesser degree (not enough to where it doesn’t exist, mind you) among Caucasian individuals than among POCs. Perhaps I am wrong in this assumption (and if so, I’d like to be proven wrong!), but I still wish to chip away at this problem. And I’ll start by having these discussions with the people of my community.  

 

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