In 1949, Mental Health America, then known as the National Association for Mental Health, founded National Mental Health Month to build awareness about mental illness and conditions like bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia. Seventy-three years later, our collective consciousness as a Nation is still wading through the fog of stigma related to mental health. While we have made monumental strides, much work remains to be done if we are to improve mental health outcomes, especially in the black community.
Fortunately, language has changed dramatically on the subject for the better, and the kinds of resources available today for the “average American” were unthinkable at the time. However, it is no surprise that our community persistently faces poorer mental health outcomes even after all these years. Consequently, the national conversation and advocacy for black mental health require urgency if we are to make a lasting impact on our people.
Given our nation’s checkered history of equity, diversity, and representation in all areas, there has not always been an appreciation of the black community's nuances for addressing mental health. We face unique challenges because we are extraordinary people. Our hands are calloused with the legacy of our survival in a country that has never fully embraced us. This history and present-day challenges leave us with both scars and open wounds in our souls.
We have reached a time in our nation’s history where people are much more attuned to the realities of mental health in our communities. Growing up, people would throw the word ‘crazy’ around, and even when we were vaguely aware, someone struggled with some mental illness. In my experience today, people are much more likely to express genuine concern for mental illness rather than shame an individual for their physiological differences.
The truth is that nobody gave us the tools to support those around us facing these hardships. Our parents did not teach us how to recognize the signs and respond in an empathetic, nurturing, and kind way.
My goal for writing the blog is to share my perspective on simple ways to frame your conversations about mental health with loved ones, especially those who want to support individuals struggling with mental health challenges.
Above all, as humans, we want to be understood. This principle is no different for a person dealing with mental illness. Do your best to understand so that you can empathize more effectively.
In my own family, some people live with both schizophrenia and bipolar. I make it a point never to suggest that I know what it means to live in their world. I also strive to convey my love for them intentionally. It sounds simple, but mental illness can be isolating from what I have witnessed. It never helps to judge someone for feelings you will never fully understand.
We should also read up on mental conditions like depression, BPD, bipolar, etc. I am not suggesting you become a medical doctor. You should not feel empowered to prescribe or make recommendations for those you know who struggle with mental illness. If appropriate, I recommend asking whether people receive the medical support they need for their condition and encouraging them to stick to their regimens. Research resources for them and remind them that you are in their corner.
Lastly, spend time with them. These conditions can be isolating. To counter the shame of our loved ones, do things that keep them engaged. We want them to know that their presence is welcome.
As a black man in America, I am grateful for the strides that we have made as a community to be more empathetic towards one another. The more we support platforms that generate positive discussions around mental health we are guaranteed to reap the rewards of our intentionality.
Ultimately, the next big thing for mental health in the black community is you and me. To quote Michael Jackson, “I’m looking at the man in the mirror!” We have to be the change we want to see in the world. You are our hope for a better tomorrow.