Mental health is the next frontier of diversity and inclusion within organizations. Black Americans are no different when it comes to the prevalence of mental health conditions when compared to the rest of the population. According to the Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.
This Mind Share Partners interview seeks to explore and uncover unique experiences and barriers to workplace mental health in the Black American community. I came across Imade Nibokun Borha, an award-winning writer, journalist, and founder of an online movement called “Depressed While Black” where she shares her personal mental health journey in an effort to combat the stigma surrounding depression and other mental health conditions in the black community.
Mind Share Partners sat down with Imade to talk about how the workplace specifically affects Black American mental health. We also dive into the unique stigma experienced within the community and distinctive actions and perspectives businesses can take to support Black American mental health.
Imade: “I started working with a mental health nonprofit in the fall of 2018, which has allowed my career path and mental health advocacy to overlap—my goal for quite some time now. I am a writer and I worked in journalism and have been a creative writer for the majority of my career. I worked at a small town journalism job and had experienced a lot of triggers with readers who didn’t like my work. I attempted suicide for the second time in February 2018 and eventually quit my job in April 2018. I believed that I wasn’t hireable and that no company would hire a broken, defective, and mentally ill writer. Fortunately, I was able to transition into communications, and now I am able to use my experiences to help others.”
Imade: “This movement began as my creative thesis in school. It was for my non-fiction writing MFA and we had to create a thesis in 2013. I didn’t think I had anything to write about. In the black community, it’s common not to have a father and be raised in a single-parent household. I didn’t think I was going through anything important.
I thought about how I was diagnosed with major depressive order back in 2012, where I was speeding on a Los Angelos highway wanting to die. I thought maybe this was something I should write about and started with the MFA pieces, which has now evolved into an in-progress book and an online community. I wanted to put my experiences out there because I didn’t know anyone else who was black and dealing with depression. It was a way for me to both find my community and ask for help. Talking about my experiences is the reason why I’m alive. For someone like me who has chronic suicidal thoughts and impulsive actions, if I’m not talking about what I’m going through I am dead. Depressed While Black is definitely an act of survival.”
Imade: “I knew I was depressed when I was 24 and unemployed for a year, right before going into my graduate journalism degree program. I just wanted to be a writer and work freelance, full time. I ended up quitting my advertising job, thinking I would land this one gig—I didn’t. So I ended up living in my mom’s house and everything was going wrong. That’s when the depression hit. I had pills I was ready to take and I knew this wasn’t normal. I dabbled into therapy, but I could only afford a therapy intern before I went to the University of Southern California. Through their student counseling center, I was referred to an in-network therapist when my mental health took a nose dive. I didn’t think I had a problem until I started taking on a lot of coursework, including a documentary course where I was doing way too much. In December 2012, a film shoot went wrong and I found myself speeding on the highway wanting to die. So the next day, I went to the counseling center and asked for help. I hit a wall, realizing this wasn’t just a casual depression, and that I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Imade: “I grew up thinking that depression was a white person’s disease and that black people didn’t need therapy—that we are stronger than that. Unfortunately, that is what I was raised to believe. We went through slavery, and that is often used as a reason to say “ you haven’t gone through anything”. I felt like I didn’t go through anything and didn’t have a big trauma experience in my life.
It took me forever to realize this wasn’t going to be just a therapy fix, even though therapy is great. I needed something more. A minister had walked me through a lot of traumas from my past and at the end of the prayer, he informed me to get on medication. He gave me permission to not just be spiritual, but gave me the permission to have a concrete wellness plan. The idea that I am a better Christian if I used prayer and not medication caused me to go through so much suffering.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that stigma is often a response to what society punishes and what society rewards. If you look back, historically, we didn’t have the option of having therapy and our bodies were actually experimented on by doctors. When mental hospitals were initially created they thought that black people “just needed to work.”
It’s easier to say we don’t need therapy, then to seek therapy and get abused. A lot of things we’ve done are coping mechanisms for racism we experienced.
So in my advocacy, I’m saying yes, we have a stigma, but let’s look at what it’s a response to. The mental health system is based upon the conditions of upper-class white people. Often, we are not even being seen because our symptoms are not being considered symptoms, because many times we aren’t even considered human. A lot of us deal with anger issues because anger is a much more accessible form of exhibiting depression than crying spell. Instead of getting mental health treatment, we are getting thrown in jail because our responses to trauma are criminalized.
So I want to be a part of changing the conversation, “How can we figure out ways to fix this structure of racism so it wouldn’t exist anymore? So that people will realize therapy is pro-black and something that we can do.” It’s going to take a long time and I look up to those who were AIDS advocates for years and years, chipping away at the stigma to the point where we are talking about it often now. It’s going to take generations, but we have people we can look up to and say “they worked at it when no one was talking about it and we can do that too.”
Imade: “Absolutely. Most of the challenge around my own mental health has been unemployment and the difficulty of filing unemployment which causes financial struggles—including the inability to have a wellness team like a therapist or psychiatrist. For the black community and other minorities, we have a higher unemployment rate and are unable to have health insurance to allow us to receive mental health treatment.
It’s a challenge when you are a young, black journalist. I was thrown into a majority white environment and was the only black person in my newsroom. So many news pieces are going on about black folks and police brutality, and all I saw on the cover of my own magazine were black people with mugshots.
It’s traumatizing to see racism on a daily basis at your job and have no one there to validate your feelings.
There was a period of time where I thought I was losing my mind. How do you fight the system when you are working for the system? There is so much of the black experience that hasn’t been covered in the media and I didn’t really have anyone to say “Hey, I understand and feel your pain.” I went to my bosses and shared I was really struggling when readers would say negative things about my work, and they basically told me if I give up I’m letting those readers win.
I don’t care about the readers, I care about how my mental health reacts to criticism, and that I’m in bed all day and becoming suicidal. I care about my mental wellness. I think on a subconscious level they were assuming black people work so much, and don’t understand that black people cry and break down. It felt like at the end of the day they treated me like I was giving up. I wish that I had someone who was black who understood that black people get tired too. I wish I had someone saying it’s okay for a black person to get tired.”
Imade: “To give you an example from my current job, letting black people (really all people) leave early for therapy or come later for therapy is really important. I am such a workhorse I often feel guilty for asking, but I do sometimes need that flexibility. I’m also taking a class to help me not self-harm and lessen impulsive urges to do something self-destructive. Allowing me to leave early once a week for this lets me learn more about my mental health condition, how to treat it better, and lets me be a better worker.
My boss saying “you don’t have to explain everything” is so reassuring. I feel like I have to constantly explain why I’m leaving early or when things come up. I over explain because you don’t want people to think you are making it up. Saying they believe me and that I didn’t have to explain everything meant a lot to me, because it portrayed trust, and that it was normal.
I’m lucky to work at a mental health organization that gets that. At the place I work at, around 90% of the people have mental health conditions. Hiring people with mental health conditions and having them in leadership is so important and powerful. I would also say having a job that consistently partners with black organizations that are mental health driven is important—not just because it’s black history month. There are a lot of things you can do to integrate black mental wellness throughout the year.”
Imade: “I think the first thing they need to do is share that it exists. A lot of times you don’t know you have it and can use it. I think it would be great if leadership normalized using EAPs by sharing their own personal stories of struggles. When leaders demonstrate and share about their own mental health it’s easier for others to feel comfortable sharing their own experiences.
There is an idea in the back of your mind as a black person that goes something like, “I should be happy I have this job” or “at least you’re not a slave.” Unfortunately, that is still a mentality that has been force fed to us, the idea of just being grateful we are here. This can make black people do things in their jobs that are far outside the boundaries of appropriate work and life balance. A lot of times we are looking to our bosses to see what is appropriate behavior. If our boss is talking about using the company EAP, then we will think it’s okay too.
Employers need to go above and beyond to advertise these services because a lot of us are distrustful of our jobs. We think that if we use the EAP they are going to be listening in on us. We are paranoid and justified in being paranoid. So I think a company has to go out of the way and promote that it’s confidential, that the counselor is of our own choosing and not pre-selected, and that it’s totally separate from the job.”
Imade: “This may sound bold, but we need to make mental health treatment free, and a basic human right. Part of the stigma when it comes to black people and believing that therapy is for white people stems from it being so expensive. So implicitly, when we say therapy is for white people, we mean it’s for rich white people. If therapy was financially accessible, I believe the stigma in the black community would significantly decrease.
Making it free can dismantle the “it’s not for me” belief. Stigma is a coping mechanism and a lot of times what it does is it increases the blow of rejection. So instead of getting rejected by the system, we will respond and say “oh that’s just not for me”.
We also have to decrease the barriers to black mental health professionals. I think that is going to be another huge part of eliminating the stigma. We see that most therapists are white, so it’s reaffirming our belief that it’s not for us. We need to see black mental health professionals. We need them to come to a career day for kids and instill these norms from the very beginning of Black American children’s education. We need to stop criminalizing black kids, stop punishing or suspending them, and let them know they are smart and capable of being in psychology and fields where they will be experts. Including black professors in psychology can be a great way to start lowering that barrier.
We also need to democratize the DSM-5 and incorporate symptoms black folks experience. We need to make sure black people are a part of testing and research, in a way in which they have power when it comes to medicine. There are so many things we need to do. If we can make mental health free or as affordable as possible and see more black mental health professionals, I believe those two are the main pillars of destigmatizing. Destigmatizing is really a question of access here and once we figure out access we can dismantle the stigma.”
Imade: “I think it’s given me a sense of purpose that my writing is bigger than “look at this celebrity I interviewed”. It’s more of a conversation of “am I serving the marginalized people who are historically not included in journalism”. It’s helped me look beyond just employment as an end goal, and it’s helped me to ask for help. Writing, to me, is a long way of asking for help, and finding others who I can relate that are going through or have experienced the same thing.
Black people need to know they have the intellectual complexity to have a mental health condition.
For so long, we’ve been denied the affirmation that we can have and experience mental illness. Instead, we are told things like “he has a learning disability or she has an anger problem”, but we have the humanity to have a mental health condition. My writing allows me to affirm we are human and innately deserving of help. This is a driving mission of everything I do.
A lot of people open up to me about their struggles and having the community and normalizing what we go through is incredibly powerful. It’s given me a community, and an opportunity to live and survive. It’s given other people a platform and community so they can share their voices too. My writing has brought together a community of people to draw strength from and encourage one another.”
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