I was 19 the first time I cut myself on purpose. I was 25 before I really understood the underlying issues that led me to find solace in destructive behavior, and it took me until after 30 to let go of the shame which prompted my secrecy.
For better or worse, I grew up in a family where my strength was measured by my ability to suffer in silence, emotional reflection was not valued, and public displays of intense emotions were vilified. Don’t get me wrong, this environment helped me develop skills necessary for a Black woman working towards success in a white world. I handle micro-aggressions without flinching (though with a lot of internal side eye). I rarely struggle during interactions with CEOs, college presidents, tenured faculty, disgruntled customers, and (the most difficult) students with late assignments. I am adept at telling people exactly where they can go with a smile, and seldom find myself in public situations I cannot handle. The downside of course, is those emotions – fear, anger, frustration, and sadness – are always still there. I just learned to suppress them, I never spent the time to learn how to process any negative emotions. For me, it was easier to pretend they didn’t exist.
I learned later, mostly by reading anecdotal accounts of Black women with similar experiences, and social psychological research on the prevalence of undiagnosed mental health issues in communities of color, that the black community in a particular has a long history of ignorance on this topic. For the first time, I had patterns to link to my experiences. I (partially) understood the resistance from my parents, even in the face of clear evidence of self-harm, to allow me to see a therapist. I understood why I felt like I needed help, but the people closest to me were loath to admit it. Mental health, is rarely discussed in the Black community. We believe our ancestors’ fortitude and ability to live through slavery and its lasting impacts speaks to our unique ability to persevere. It doesn’t help that most psychotherapists are white, a group many in the Black community distrust (rightfully so, see: Tuskegee Experiment). So we value emotional “strength” and label those who publicly express the need and desire for assistance in improving their mental health as weak, over-emotional, disabled, or couch the discussion in the form of less threatening “wellness” issues, leading to big gaps in successful treatment of a range of mental health concerns.
At different points in my life I’ve dealt with depression (especially when physical health concerns arise), and generalized anxiety (during work or relationship stress). If you happen to see me while I’m dealing with all three, run. My self-harm was a physical manifestation of these mental health issues. Those emotions I worked so hard to ignore, just resurfaced elsewhere. I advocate for psycho-therapy because it teaches skills to confront and process negative emotions in ways useful to your everyday life. It doesn’t teach control, it teaches emotional exploration and incorporation. Are there certain people, places, or situations where my depression or anxiety are more pronounced? If so, is it important to maintain these things in my life? What behavior (my own or others) limit positive emotional responses? If it’s my behavior, how can I actively change? If others’, can I broach the subject easily, and will they be open to a conversation about the issues? As a supplement, surround yourself with an empathetic support system. It’s not your job to educate others about mental health. You have the right to be honest about your feelings, and your needs. The only way we can remove the stigma of mental health discussions in communities of color is to starting having them. It’s not always easy to talk openly about your own struggles, but I thought maybe if I took this step it might give someone else the push they need to do the same.