Out of the Shadows

Deconstructing the Stigma of Mental Health in the Black Community

Renetta Burrell Perry Data News Weekly Contributor

For centuries African Americans have navigated life in the new world with transcendental savvy, poise and unprecedented grit and grace. Being ripped from our homeland and families, chained together in ships where we endured sickness and death, and ultimately forced into the horrors and abuses of slavery and servitude has left generational and emotional scars so deep that even scholars find difficulty explaining how we have survived.

Whether it is innate ability or happenstance is arguable, but regardless of the origin of our strengths, history has proven our acute possession of the unmatched and unmeasurable abilities to adapt and thrive, whatever the circumstance. While this has been fundamental to our existence in America, it has also forced us to “pack” or compartmentalize problems, to assert strength and to assimilate. In our world, we call it “keeping it moving.” Little boys have historically been told not to show their feelings or emotions from early-on. Has this translated into generations of men who lack empathy, even self-awareness? Women often adopted the mantra “I don’t need a man” to cope with the absence of a man’s support in their lives. Has this produced generations of women who have learned to emasculate our men? Adolescents were threatened not talk about the same sex from a romanticized perspective. Has this spawned tens of thousands to remain “in the closet” regarding their sexual identities? And children were always told to “stay in a child’s place,” which was a place where no conversation about anything scholarly, opinionated or overly expressive, was allowed. Was this protective or counter-productive? “Whippings” ensued as a form of punishment, supported by the “spare the rod, spoil the child,” ideology which is paraphrasing of Old Testament scripture. But in more modern societies, who held the responsibility of defining the thin line between discipline and abuse?

In exchange for acknowledging or embellishing any emotional overspill, we were steadfastly directed to rely heavily on God, faith, and family. These were the unwavering forces that had the ability to get us through any and every single thing we would or could ever face. Conversely, lending credence to any circumstance that would surpass these forces was seen as unfathomable. We had, in fact, survived three hundred years of slavery with those forces on or side.

What could possibly surpass that?

But times have changed, and generations of African Americans have acquired education to support our intelligence, acumen, and overall genius. Most of us still view God and faith as the formidable forces that guide and direct us, but we are slowly dismantling the idea that people with mental illness are “crazy,” and we are forced to recognize that even with all of our strengths, we are still human. With this paradigm shift, propelled by the national movement to recognize mental illnesses as true illness, and with its mainstream acceptance, African Americans have slowly began deconstructing the myth that mental illness is a taboo subject.

In a recent article published by the University of Houston, Dr. Rheeda Walker, author of “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health,” addresses the phenomenon of African Americans and suicide in her research. “Anything that is perceived as mental health-related is taboo in the Black community. To further complicate things, ‘getting help’ is seen as a weakness so folks press on even when they are struggling. Doing so is part of a cultural legacy of survival in the face of brutal circumstances,” says Walker. As of February 2022, several high-profile African Americans had ended their lives through suicide, including former Miss USA and Attorney Cheslie Kryst, 30, who was the most popular. Others include “Walking Dead” star Moses Moseley, 31; Mayor of Hyatsville, MD., Kevin Ward, 41 and Ian Alexander, son of Oscar winning Actress Regina King. Alexander was only 26 years old. Closer to home, the 2022 suicide deaths of a middle school student in New Orleans and a Southern University of Baton Rouge student both left the community riveted with grief and grappling for answers. These events uncover a disturbing trend that is supported by the troubling statistics revealing that in the past decade, suicide rates in minorities have dramatically increased with African American youth, specifically aged 25-35, leading the numbers of a population of young people choosing to end their own lives. Dr. Walker suggests that suicide is “preventable” and points to “open conversations” and “proactivity” as remedies.

Local Social Worker Jozetta Taylor Martin, Support Coordinator at QSC, (Quality Support Coordination) agrees. “Mental health encompasses a broad spectrum of illnesses, and it affects our community in many ways,” she says pointing to the plethora of adverse issues unchecked mental health can cause. Without proper diagnoses, analysis, and medical support, she says the problems manifest through “criminal activities, domestic violence, disputes, drug addiction, homelessness and suicide.”

But Martin, like Walker, feels reform is within our reach through first of all recognizing problems, secondly confronting them, then putting resources into action. “It is important that everyone knows that mental health affects everyone, especially the African American population because we don’t know about the resources; however it is important that we become more educated on mental health and mental illness,” she asserts, challenging the community to research and become acquainted with the broad spectrum of illnesses that fall under mental health so that we could become familiar with terms and outcomes which will ultimately make us more savvy at acquiring help. In light of the growing rate of suicide in our community, she offers, “we need to make it known that suicide is a problem and address it as whole, seeking more resources for those who have suicidal thoughts. We must realize that it affects everyone from young people to adults, many of whom do not know how to reach out for help.” She adds, “we can address these mental health issues by making it known that there are resources.”

Community Resources

Visionaries like Entrepreneur Chef Blake Cressey, owner of Tasty Treats, are at the forefront of a movement of young leaders who are willing to tackle mental health in our community head-on. As the creator of the groundbreaking festival called “Get Your Mind Right,” Cressey understands and wants to convey to the community the importance of “controlling your mind and not letting your mind control you.” She agrees with Martin in that the conversation must start early-on, at a school aged level in order to assure its effectiveness. “Mental health has been a part of our community before the pandemic and now it has worsened,” she says, adding that not everyone will require medication, but many, oftentimes just need someone to talk to. “Sometimes they just may need to share how they’re feeling, just to vent, just to release, and that’s not always available.”

Cressey says the biggest issue surrounding mental health in our community is that it is not talked about. She sees her event as a step towards changing that. She would like to see it take place at least once a month and her goal is to “literally help people to get their minds right” through learning how to manage their mental health by learning techniques like meditating and talking things through. She also wants the community to know that it is not all about a prescription from the doctors. She wants to offer alternative ways to gain mental health. She says in our community, we all have tried different approaches because many doctors do not take Medicaid/Medicare, or do not have available appointments for patients who do not have the resources to pay, so “we are just trying to figure things out as we go.”

Cressey is seeking sponsors, vendors, advertisers, and volunteers to help make her event successful. Anyone interested should reach out to her via her social media:
The event is scheduled for July 2022.

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