Mental health is an already stigmatized and “taboo” subject today. The pressing matter is the omnipresent elephant in the room that has been left unaddressed by people of every race and ethnicity, but worse within the black community. The world has belatedly woken up to the impact of mental health on overall public health and infrastructure. While there have been welcome advances in tackling and destigmatizing mental health, I fear we have yet to scratch the surface in educating and supporting members of the black community in dealing with and tackling mental health issues. The wrongful neglect of mental health and the often-unspoken psychological traumas within the black community, have proven to be unfortunate and deadly silent killers in our communities.
Before we discuss the root causes, repercussions, and possible remedies to this issue, we must first explore mental health to ensure that we have a well-rounded understanding of what it means. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. To be mentally healthy is not synonymous for simply being without a mental illness. The same goes for physical health. We would not immediately state one as a healthy individual solely because they do not suffer from Lupus or kidney failure. So why do we not maintain that level of rational thinking when it comes to mental health? I believe that addressing this issue at a societal and community level would positively influence the discourse around mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health can be negatively affected by a host of factors examples of which include socioeconomic standings, standards of living and quality of life; on the one hand, or hormonal or neurologic imbalances on the other hand. Mental illness can manifest in various forms and can either be triggered by an isolated incident or a build-up of a ‘legion’ of traumatic events. These are now being gradually understood but, in our communities, we still uphold values or traditions that are sometimes psychologically damaging, thus leading to the perpetuation of stigmas and ‘thou shall not speak’ attitudes exacerbating the effects of mental health in our communities. It would be remiss of me to attempt to unpack these behavioural issues however I would like to explore a couple that we can all try to easily mitigate in our personal and professional lives.
A popular yet damaging mindset that many in our community have, is one that I like to call the “cursed complacency mindset”. When one follows the cursed complacency mindset, they believe that they should be content with what they have, despite the challenges and issues that they may face. A majority in our communities believe that to be unhappy with undesirable situations or circumstances is to be selfish and ungrateful. We are taught to accept things as they are, to ‘shut up and be grateful’, or to stop complaining when we experience injustices. Comparisons are often drawn with people in less fortunate circumstances, with phrases such as; “many people around the world would kill to live the life you do or have the advantages you have”. This thought process is so damaging because it subjugates and disenfranchises people, causing the constant invalidation of their feelings and the belittlement of their lived experiences. Every “deal with it”, “don’t you know how lucky you are?”, “you have nothing to complain about”, “it could be worse, imagine you were in X country?” and “you’ll be fine”, leaves yet another laceration on one’s mind until eventually their mental health buckles under the weight. While the ‘westernised’ instinct could be to berate individuals with this “cursed complacency mindset”, consider the pressures that have forced this mindset and understand that this is something that has been forced on individuals in our communities. I think of our parents and grandparents, first generation immigrants that have endured societal and situational hardships but have kept it bottled-in for decades, I think of folks who have been subjected to discriminatory laws and practices yet, have had no one advocating for them and end up feeling like they have no voice, consider these scenarios, and understand that mindsets such as this are forced upon members in our communities. We are expected to be resilient and develop a hard shell in order to deal with the injustices and the cruelties we face – sometimes daily. “How dare you show you emotions in testing/trying times?”. The unfortunate truth is that devaluing our emotions is often the key to our survival. It allows us to focus on getting by day after day. Things like ‘mental health days’ are luxuries for people who must work tirelessly for their basic needs. Resilience is indeed an admirable virtue but, what is the cost of acquiring or improving resilience to members of our communities? The impact of years of physical and psychological traumas and pain are immeasurable particularly in consideration to developing, nurturing and providing the youth with role models and positive influences. The opportunity to talk things out is worth its weight in gold and has the same rarity as a diamond.
In the same vein, many of us are from first generation families, meaning that our parents immigrated to our current country of residence and raised us here. From an objective lens, one can appreciate the cultural clashes that are bound to wage wars within our households. The western and eastern worlds mingle and mix, forming an amalgamation of practices, rituals, mannerisms and most importantly, ideas. This immiscible solution made from our views on life and those of our parents does not leave a lot of room for comfortable discussions, especially discussions based on mental health. Despite my example being a generalisation of all immigrant parents, it is important that we acknowledge that this undeclared law of silence is the reality of many first and even second-generation children. It is said that charity begins at home, therefore the behaviour we grow up learning is the behaviour we carry on into our later life. When you grow up censoring yourself and your emotions for the sake of others, you grow up in some form of mental captivity. Most of us have been forced to navigate life this way without noticing the damage that we experienced as children or young adults. It takes conversations that are had in later life to unearth these hidden scars that have been causing us unknown discomfort for many years. But how to we remedy this issue? How do we reverse years' worth of generational trauma?
With progress in the destigmatisation of mental issues and personal wellbeing, the key to progression is not solely based on reflection but is more so rooted in ‘active’ action. We should strive to identify our issues and struggles, then cultivate an action plan towards the solutions we so desperately need. How do we do this? The most important thing we can do almost immediately to remedy this is to normalise discussions on how we feel, how we felt, what can be better and what people can do to help. Being comfortable sharing stories of pain and anguish and having discussions on their impact on our lives promotes healthier living and ensures that the generation that come after us learn to start valuing themselves and their worth. It helps us become more productive and enables us to make telling contributions both individually and collectively to the growth of our communities. Whether you talk to a friend, sibling or parent, you are playing your valuable part in destigmatising mental health. Ignorance is the enemy of learning. When we find the words to express how we felt/feel, we give voice to the marginalised or those who feel that they do not have the power to speak up. It allows us to open minds and hearts, to start healing, and to address issues we have locked away and hidden.
Let us make a pledge this black history month to have better, meaningful conversations about mental health and wellbeing. While we celebrate the achievements of resilient pioneers who have paved a way for future success for us, let us also prioritise our mental health and create a culture that normalises mental health checks and physical and emotional wellbeing. It should not be a luxury afforded only to a select few. Let us grow in our understanding of its importance and harness this actively in our roles as mentors, influencers, parents and guardians of future generations.
About the Author
Sophie is a Bioprocess Technician at Pfizer with a BSc in Chemical & Pharmaceutical Science. She enjoys reading and has a love for writing. With her personal blog “The Sophiesticated Blog”, she loves to write stories and poems in her free time.