Everyone could hear her long before they could see her. It was 2:00am at a liquor store on the corner of Grand River and Woodward. It was dark outside, but when she stepped into the store I could see her in the fullness of the light. She had on a long trench coat, and her loose skirt hung below her knees, fraying at the edges.
“What chu looking at?” she said, when she caught me eyeing her.
She turned towards the cashier, then shuffled towards the back of the store. She began stuffing 25-cent bags of chips into her pockets as she sang hymns at the top of her voice. Some men in the store began laughing and recording her on their cell phones. As I walked out, the last thing I heard was her voice saying, “I got a mental problem! Can’t you see that, sir? You mighta been one of my boyfriends back in high school.”
Scenes such as this aren’t uncommon in the inner city. Visit Detroit, Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia and you’re bound to see similar scenarios play out just like the one above. While homelessness and poverty in the black community are epidemics often discussed, we tend to leave out how mental illness is a leading cause of both of these.
According to the National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty, 50 percent of homeless people are African-American. Even more troubling, 27 percent of African-Americans living on the street have dealt with some form of mental illness. According to the study, black women of all socioeconomic classes are hit the hardest, with a whopping 27 percent dealing with mental illness at any given stage in their life.
These statistics are telling in regards to how the black community stigmatizes and places shame around the issue of mental illness. We have to ask ourselves: Why do we fail to respond to mental health the way we should? Why is it so hard for black people, especially black women, to take a step back and take care of mental and emotional health?
In her book, Power Choices: Seven Signposts on Your Journey to Wholeness, Love, Joy, and Peace, Dr. Brenda Wade writes:
“Generations ago, somebody in your family was enslaved, and we have to understand that daily trauma of being degraded, humiliated, treated like an animal, treated as if you have no rights and no feelings…the luxury of being depressed or taking a day off didn’t exist. We’ve incorporated [that] in our own mentality today: ‘no matter how much pain I’m in, I will keep moving, keep performing, keep working.’”
As Dr. Wade explains, black women never had the luxury of being weak. During slavery, taking a moment for self-care would have equated to death or at least severe punishment. In today’s world, this same fear manifests itself—except now we are a power-suit-wearing CEO, single mother trying to feed three children, or a homeless woman walking into a corner store. We still view mental illness as a weakness—rather than a critical health issue—and try to sweep it under the rug.
Furthermore, not only do we overwork ourselves, but we use language to reinforce this “Superwoman complex” when we see other black women being “weak.” It doesn’t matter if you’re at church, at work, or at home; the narrative is the same. The problem lies not only in the shame we may feel having a mental disorder, but also in not having a definite understanding of how it may show up in our friends, family, and colleagues.
But if we arm ourselves with the knowledge of what we’re dealing with, we can then craft a self-care plan that will help us get through particularly tough days. If you feel like you don’t know where to start, here are some tips to point you in the right direction. They’ve helped me and I can only hope they’ll do the same for you:
Stop and breathe.
Relax for two minutes. Breathe in and out slowly. The world isn’t going to end if you don’t do anything for two minutes. Breathing is meant to get you to slow down. You can also pray, meditate, or recite affirmations during this time. The key is to just give yourself a few moments to calm down and focus yourself so you can deal with whatever is happening.
Check in with yourself emotionally.
Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now? Why?” If we do this consistently enough, we can get a feel for the “big picture” of whatever is causing us to feel a certain way, as well as how it affects our behavior. If you keep asking yourself this question, you’ll uncover patterns and can make necessary adjustments.
Find an outlet for your stress and anxiety.
This can be anything: writing, going to the gym, listening to music, or simply taking a walk around the block. Regardless, you’re trying to provide yourself with something you do consistently that’s only for YOU. For black women, this is exceedingly important because we rarely take time for ourselves.
Talk to a trusted friend or loved one.
Historically, black people aren’t the most trusting of the U.S. health care system, so it may be more helpful to talk to those in your life who are familiar with what you’re going through. If you have one person you feel safe with, talk to them. They can provide you with the comfort and compassion you need.
Prepare for bad days on the good (or okay) days.
Have a Bible verse, a prayer (or prayer warrior), or a brief meditation on deck for tough days, weeks, people, and everything in between. Learn what helps you recover from a bad day, and be prepared to do those things when one occurs. Netflix? Spending time with family? Hot shower or bath? Having a plan in place for when it gets tough helps you feel in control and ready to tackle the day.
You should read about the way mental illness may affect your life, so you can be better equipped to deal with it. But you should also read self-help books that could possibly offer you insight and guidance on how to be kinder with yourself. I have included a list of books at the bottom that may be good resources.
Eat well and exercise.
I can’t stress this enough. I’m not asking you to go to Whole Foods for all organic foods or work out everyday at the gym, but eating well and moving your body has been proven to naturally reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. I have also included resources for eating healthy food that tastes good below. (As an aside, I JUST found out Whole Foods takes food stamps. So if you happen to have a SNAP card, such as myself, you can get some really good food for the cheap.)
And last, but certainly not least…
Find a black therapist (if you can).
Therapy is important, even if the thought of it makes us uncomfortable. Having a professional to talk with and help you find coping skills can be a life-saver. Having a therapist that looks like you will help even more. They will often ‘get’ things that therapists of other races can’t immediately see.