ABOVE PHOTO: Kristoff St. John Photo: (Shutterstock)
By Kendall Alexander
Mental health in the Black community has long had a stigma attached to it and it’s about time we opened up about our problems. Many in the Black community hold the belief that ‘if you go to church, Jesus is the way, he will ease all your pain.’ While religion and spirituality are also important to the culture, the conversation around mental health should not stop there.
Last week, we heard of the passing of Young and the Restless actor Kristoff St. John. We also heard of his battle with depression after losing his only son in 2014 to suicide at the young age of 24. It is no coincidence that multiple people in one family may suffer with mental illness in one form or another from battling addiction of any kind to
These behaviors and illnesses are hereditary, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to cope with the pain and trauma behind the illnesses.
Historically, the Black community has suffered a long time in silence. If we discuss the trauma correlated to slavery, why can’t we discuss the effects that trauma has on the brain, nervous system, and DNA? Why do we put the Jesus salve on the wound and never discuss it again? If we acknowledge where our religious, spiritual, and recreational practices sprang from, why do we deny the mental strain our ancestors reluctantly carried in their blood lines?
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, trauma can be passed to offspring in utero, modifying DNA what we have also recalled as ‘
The National Alliance of Mental Illness states African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health issues than other cultures including: depression, PTSD, suicide and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The catalyst from these illnesses is not only slavery but trauma from racial discrimination, racial tension, environmental discrimination, and familial trauma. Why do we feel we cannot speak about these issues? Why are we ashamed to discuss these problems with each other?
On the opposite side of the coin, Black Americans have experienced disadvantages in the health care system, most infamously with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Luckily, there are doctors and physicians out there who look like us who understand our plight and have our best interest at heart when it comes to handling mental health.
Last year, actress Jenifer Lewis came to the African American Museum of Philadelphia to discuss her book “The Mother of Black Hollywood” in which she addressed the journey of childhood trauma which led her to seek therapy. In therapy, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an illness approximately 2.3 million Americans have. Lewis is very candid when it comes to discussing mental health and seeking treatment as she fully understands the stigma behind utilizing therapy.
Mental illness runs in my family as well. Recently, I encountered my own mental health issues. I have just started battling anxiety, brought on by stress and other outside stimuli. I am still learning my triggers, but when it gets really bad, I have panic attacks, which can last anywhere between a few minutes and what feels like hours.
While I am having the attacks, it very literally feels like I am completely trapped in my body and I’m going to die. I have sought therapy and other forms of treatment to reduce my symptoms and feelings of anxiety.
I discuss therapy and mental health with anyone willing to listen, because it isn’t something anyone should have to suffer with alone. In these conversations, I have often learned from other Black peoples’ experiences with mental health and know that I am not alone.
So what can you do to become more comfortable with having these conversations, tackle your own mental health struggles, and potentially help someone else through their experience? Start opening up dialogue around mental health. Journal, be empathetic to other people and their experiences, practice meditation and find healthy outlets that help you cope, talk to a trusted friend, and seek proper treatment. Don’t be afraid to shop around either, as we are all different and what works for you may not work for your cousin or best friend. It is high time we started discussing mental illness as a community in a healthy way as it isn’t going anywhere and could potentially get worse for generations to come with the rise of social media and new technologies.
For a list of resources available to you, please visit the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) https://healthymindsphilly.org/en/resources/. Like anything worth learning from and building, it takes time, but please know you are not alone and everyone has a battle you may know nothing about. Each one reach one teach one, and maybe collectively we can begin to heal past wounds and properly arm ourselves to cope. A brighter future can only come if we do the work to prepare for it today.