Black millennials are transforming the narrative on mental health in their communities through unique, creative channels.
Mental illness is often stigmatized in the Black community. To worsen a dire situation, Black people are 20 percent more likely to suffer from a serious mental illness than the rest of the population. A trend that has seemingly trickled down to the group’s youth.
Recently, with public meltdowns like that of popular artist Kanye West, more conversations around mental health slowly emerge. West, who disclosed his bipolar diagnosis several weeks after a displaying behavior considered bizarre even for his eccentricities, joins the leagues of artists like Solange, Kid Cudi, and Keke Palmer in open discussions of personal, psycho-emotional issues. Even West’s mentor and hip hop giant, Jay Z says that the shame surrounding wellness is “ridiculous,” breaking through a door that remains largely closed.
This reticence on mental health has a long precedence: Historically, cultural bias can be found in every avenue of society and mental health professionals are not immune to racism, despite social status. The lack of culturally competent mental health professionals especially makes access more difficult once a person decides to seek help.
“For African Americans and people from an African society, having a mental disorder is viewed as a sign of weakness and a sign of shame,” said Huberta Jackson-Lowman, president of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) and professor in the Psychology Department at Florida A&M.
She went on to explain, “And we’re already being denigrated with the mythology that blacks are inferior, so we don’t want to be associated with anything that says something is wrong with us.”
While the present numbers show disproportionately high percentages of Black people suffering from mental health issues, the lack of access to quality mental health services exacerbates the problem. The National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) reports that people of color receive substandard care which results in many people with a mental disease being misdiagnosed, untreated and underserved.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, African Americans are less likely to be offered medication therapy or psychotherapy for PTSD, major depression and ADHD. Doctors also use verbally dominant language with Black patients 23 percent more than they do with their Caucasian patients and also communicated 33 percent less.
Jackson-Lowman, who says that the treatment of patients should be a holistic process, includes the socio-historical experiences people of African descent to further understand the layers of difficulty.
From the perspective of ABPsi, we stress that [Black people have] experienced, incessant, unrelenting trauma. We’ve never gotten a break. We have 400 plus years of trauma. The Middle Passage, then enslavement and the continued racism and oppression that goes on with modern society. And if you know anything about human response to stress, you know that the human capacity to deal with stress is limited. We cannot handle chronic stress. It results in our body system breaking down or an emotional breakdown. Relational breakdowns, too. We also have difficulty with intimacy and, as well as, social breakdowns.
Siding with Jackson-Lowman’s assertion, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that mental health disorders amongst people of African descent develop from social-economic factors such as increased violence associated with racism, environment and homelessness.
At the same time, Black people are also more likely to be victims of violent crimes and trauma which increases the risk of PTSD. In addition, the homeless have a higher risk of mental illness and at least 40 percent of that population is now Black; despite African-Americans only being 13 percent of the total U.S. population due to rising rents and housing discrimination.
If you run the numbers, it looks bleak on paper. However, a growing number of Black millennials are working diligently to destroy the humiliation of mental health while bringing awareness to a taboo subject in their communities.
A Brown Hue
When Verrone Sims, founder and owner of the online retail apparel store A Brown Hue, found himself struggling with severe anxiety and PTSD, he told himself to “man-up”. Sims finally sought help after several traumatic events triggered the underlying issues he had long ignored.
Sims recounted the most difficult obstacle he faced was admitting that he needed help. “I was struggling and thinking I would get over it eventually, but after several deaths in the family, I was just so overwhelmed. I knew I needed help, but it wasn’t easy finding it. That was almost the hardest part. There wasn’t enough information or resources,” said Sims.
Sims decided to create his brand A Brown Hue as a creative response to the lack of awareness about mental illness in urban communities, while simultaneously attempting to end the negative connotation and normalize its acceptance for young African Americans through stylish apparel and accessories.
The inspirational gear offers comfort with positive and encouraging words. Coupled with a website, both offer important information regarding mental health resources specific to their locations and aiming to help them find culturally competent services.
Additionally, A Brown Hue includes questions to ask providers on the website for people seeking mental health services to ensure that they can navigate available resources with ease.
The Safe Place
The Safe Place is a free phone app that was created to help people in communities of color to find mental health services nearby. The app was created by 29-year-old mental health advocate, Jasmin Pierre, with the hopes of educating and bring mental illness awareness to Black spaces.
Pierre, who suffers from mental illness and is a suicide attempt survivor, candidly describes the attitudes she has experienced. “We are often told to pray away mental illness in the Black community. If you’re Black and want to see a therapist, many in the Black community will look at you like you’re crazy: Why don’t you just pray and trust God?, is a normal response. This is killing people in the Black community,” Pierre explains.
The Washington Post reported a study in May that found Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 dying from suicide at twice the rate of Caucasian children.
Even in adolescence, the stigma of mental illness can lead people to miss signs or underestimate the severity of symptoms associated with a mental disease. The lack of understanding often results in silence and prevents people from seeking help until it’s too late and tragedy occurs.
The Safe Place app conveniently and privately allows people to find data on mental illness via their smartphone. The app is available for Apple and Android cell phone users. Its offers an open forum for discussions as well as tips on mental health self-care. The app also has pointers on how to talk to family members about the disease.
We can’t heal what we don’t reveal
Twenty four year old actor of Queen Sugar fame, Kofi Siriboe, is using his platform to educate and encourage honest, transparent dialogue among his millennial peers. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he opened up about his own struggles with mental illness. “I feel like with mental health, people always react negatively. We kinda have a lot of stigma in our community and in society in general,” said Siriboe.
Siriboe struggled with anxiety, depression and isolation before he made a short documentary called “WTF Is Mental Health?” Attempting to open the door for frank conversations, the 4-minute miniature film showcases several young people who openly struggle with mental health, sharing their experiences with the disorders.
The actor believes that the project was a therapeutic experience, though many do not get alternative opportunities to heal or express themselves.
“Making ‘WTF Is Mental Health?’ has been a part of a healing process for me, one I’m still exploring,” Siriboe explains. “I realized the true conversation I was craving centered on young, Black people who are figuring out this mental health thing, too. If we don’t admit what’s going on to ourselves, we’re gonna keep hurting in silence. No one is gonna talk about it because it’s taboo. That’s what I wanna end.”
Siriboe posted his documentary on his Twitter page and encouraged fellow Black millennials to open up. “We can’t heal what we don’t reveal,” he wrote. Amen to that.