The month of May is #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth in the United States. I saw the above graphic circulating on Facebook and instantly loved it. When I first read the words, I knew it was a declaration against the fact that black folk usually aren’t included in larger media representations, the allocation of resources, and most dialogues concerning mental health. Originally, I was just going to repost it on Instagram with a simple, yet supportive caption.
But the words struck me deeper than I initially understood. As I contemplated the message over several days, I began to think about an alternative meaning: not only do we need to affirm Black Mental Health externally, but we also need to affirm Black Mental Health within the black community. Although I know plenty of people who are open about their interactions with therapy, I know plenty others who are completely closed off to the idea of it. Mental health and therapy continue to be taboo topics. They are still joked about, misinterpreted, and swept under the rug.
This graphic struck me so deeply because it made me realize that I was finally ready to share my own personal journey with therapy and mental wellness. One of the key steps in affirming something is vocalizing it’s existence. By sharing my story, I want to help break down the stigma and discomfort concerning cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)*. The more we talk about mental wellness and share our experiences with therapy, the more that Black Mental Health is legitimized both within and outside of the black community.
I understand that everyone’s journey is completely unique, so in no way am I proclaiming that my narrative should be everyone else’s. But I do hope that people will be able to see how therapy can be a tool for them while they are working on their own mental wellness.
TW: depression, anxiety, panic attacks
I’ve always struggled with maintaining mental wellness. There are narratives of MH struggles on both sides of my family, so I’ve come to learn it’s just part of who I am. I had my first major breakdown in elementary school after my parents separated. I had another my last year of high school after a big social fallout left me marginalized from my peers. I experienced numerous other low points off and on. But I finally hit rock bottom in junior year of undergrad
Simply put, I was stressed. I was taking an extra course per quarter at an already rigorous institution to complete a voluntary certificate program; I was working 3 part-time jobs and still struggling financially; I became isolated from social circles at school for a number of reasons out of my control; I was self-medicating with weed to help with my insomnia (doesn’t work btw); and I was too wrapped up in an emotionally-manipulative (and played-out) relationship. Largely though, I had never dealt with the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Throw the racism, sexism, and misogyny that I was experiencing on the daily into the mix, and it was a lethal combination.
In winter 2014, I had two major panic attacks. One caused me to leave class early to go home and consider missing a midterm the next day in order to recover. The other made me feel so uncontrollably terrified, I took a taxi to the emergency room of a local hospital. I even subsequently scheduled an EKG test because I was certain I was on the verge of having a heart attack. But of course the test came back normal. According to the results, I was perfectly healthy—at least physically. Mentally, I knew I was not.
I was a mess. I was either too low, or too panicked. I was emotionally-fragile. I’d lash out in unwarranted anger, only to feel gut-wrenching guilt about it later. If anyone was less than kind, I’d dissolve into uncontrollable tears. I was also incredibly insecure. Real talk, I was a b*tch to those I loved most. I was frustrated and hurting, and frustrated that I was hurting. I am so thankful that my sister and those unfazed friends never gave up on me, no matter how hysterical and scary I probably seemed.
Experiences and environments in which I had previously thrived became my biggest nightmare. I was a social butterfly that had reversed back into a shy and easily-frightened caterpillar. I became reclusive, anxiety-ridden, super skinny, and a shadow of my true personality. The final straw was when I went to visit my best friend for her 21st birthday. The night of her celebration, I spent the entire time locked in her bedroom because I thought I was going to lose it at any moment. I sat alone in the dark of the room, petrified by the music, party, and crowd blaring outside of the door, and I knew I couldn’t let my life continue in that way. I had to get back into control.
Through a roundabout way and thanks to the counseling center at my university, I got connected to a therapist practicing in nearby downtown Chicago. I was hesitant at first because of the stigma surrounding therapy, but more so because the therapist was a white woman. I anticipated the experience with a certainty that we wouldn’t be able to connect. I went into the first session feeling self-conscious about my blackness, but I left more embarrassed at the fact that I burst out crying in the first two minutes of being there. I was unsure if I would continue—even though it was clear that I needed to.
But I did continue. Faithfully. From that first session up until 3 weeks before I moved to Japan in July 2017, I saw or spoke to my therapist at least once a week for an hour or more. And I can say with 100% certainty I would have continued had I not left Chicago. Therapy literally saved my life. Coming from a family that doesn’t share much with each other, and as someone who struggles to keep close relationships, I never knew how much I just needed to TALK. Of course I had vented to family and friends before, but this conversation was different. Therapists are like a parent, friend, and mentor wrapped into one, except they have been trained to deal with crises. Family and friends cannot always shoulder the things we bring to them, but no matter how dense the discussion, my therapist was still there afterwards.
When people ask me what therapy was like, I let them know straight-up that in the first six months, I basically cried for the entirety of each session. I had no idea how many tears I’d been withholding over the course of my life. Technically-speaking though, therapy looked mainly like this: once a week, I’d meet my therapist in her office. We’d converse organically. Sometimes she would give me “homework assignments” in-between meetings (i.e. writing out a list of my biggest stressors). Occasionally, she would act as a intermediary for auxiliary treatment by recommending psychiatrists or providing insight on different medical options. Each session, I slowly began to unpack the memories and trauma that were currently affecting my daily life. This was the toughest part of therapy. However, once I released all the pent-up emotion, quit some of my extracurricular commitments, and let go of toxic people, I could feel myself getting stronger. I also got proper treatment for my insomnia and anxiety, which changed things dramatically.
I feel like I could never repay my therapist back for all she has done for me. Through our conversations, I learned how to vocalize trauma, how to recognize my triggers, and—because of our differences—how to navigate conversations centered on race without always being angry and combative. The trust I had in my therapist and her dedication to my mental wellness is the best relationship I have ever had with anyone.
I underwent therapy for almost three and a half years. As a result, today my mood is more consistent and more under control. I am able to approach problems more rationally, and understand that there are multiple routes to solutions. I am a better communicator, and a much better listener. I sleep restfully at night, and haven’t used any medication in over two years. I’m a better daughter, sister, friend, and just a better overall version of myself.
But, I also know that I have barely scratched the surface of the things I need to undo mentally and behaviorally. I can’t wait to get back to doing that self-work whenever I return to the US. I know that it will be a necessary and life-long commitment. Even now, at just only under a year after my last therapy session, I can feel my anxiety starting to slowly creep back into my life.
Black people, we are not invincible. We are not unbreakable. We are not strong 100% of the time. And that’s okay. It’s okay to feel sadness, it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to grieve, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, and it’s okay to want to get to the root of your emotions. Black Mental Health Matters.
Most black folk I’ve talked with about therapy say they’re hesitant to seek it because of the lack of cultural awareness and numbers of POC therapists in the field. This is a legitimate concern. Members of racial/ethnic minority groups accounted for less than one-fifth of the psychology workforce in 2013. But don’t let this stop you. Crises is crises, and when you’re in crisis-mode, knowing a skilled professional to turn to regardless of their race is better than trying to manage alone. Luckily, the information and resources dedicated to improving Black Mental Health are rising and becoming more accessible. A quick Google search gave me these great results:
- 5 Mental Health Blogs you Need to Check Out
- Ourselves Black: Empowering The Black Community By Promoting Mental Health
- A Growing List of Black Mental Health Resources
Ultimately however, taking control over your mental wellness is a dedicated decision. You have to want to improve yourself no matter the hurdles, and also understand that it will take serious time and work. Some people get discouraged if they don’t automatically feel “cured” after one session. Or maybe, we don’t like if the therapist strikes a nerve or induces self-reflection. Sometimes we’re not really ready to open up in the ways that we need to when we first begin. Sadly, sometimes therapists can even cause further trauma if they’re not properly trained on certain issues, or are unable to understand the experiences of POC.
Therapy is not for everyone, and although I got lucky with the first therapist I saw, sometimes it takes awhile to find the right fit. Just as you shop around for a good dentist or OB-GYN, you might also need to meet with a few therapists before you find someone you really connect with. Advocate for yourself and be honest with what you’re seeking to address. More importantly, do some self-work beforehand so that you understand that in order to reach a place of peace and strength, you may have to fight old battles and weaken your emotional façade.
You will have to experience vulnerability in therapy but it is not as scary as it sounds. Imagine having a conversation with someone who doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t place judgement, doesn’t know your family or friends, is legally prohibited from spreading your personal information, and overall, is genuinely interested in you, your story, and your happiness. It is the most freeing dialogue you will ever have. For me, some days the conversation was heavier than others. Some days, it was easier than others. Some days, I didn’t feel like talking at all. But I talked anyway. I talked, I cried, I yelled, or I laughed away whatever was affecting me that hour, that day, that month, and in this current society. Therapy helped me see how much I am impacted by everything that happens in the world, but also how much I can control what influences my mood.
We have a lot of trauma to work through as black people. But we do not have to handle it alone. Speaking with a trained professional doesn’t make you weak, or crazy, or an outsider. Therapy is a powerful resource, a tool, and a gateway. Black Mental Health Matters. YOUR mental health matters. We need to continue raising the dialogue on the importance of mental wellness, and be transparent about our journeys.
So, let’s get to talking
(ideally with a LPC or LPSW)
*Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) involves efforts to change thinking and behavioral patterns through methods such as counseling, role playing, developing problem-solving skills, and practicing mindfulness. CBT places an emphasis on helping individuals learn to be their own therapists. Clients are helped to develop coping skills, whereby they can learn to change their own thinking, problematic emotions and behavior. Further, CBT therapists emphasize what is going on in the person’s current life, rather than what has led up to their difficulties.