In recent times, based solely on the number of cultural critics, artists, speakers and everyday people that are starting to address mental health on their respective platforms, it is easy to fall into the mindset that mental health in the black community is no longer an issue.

After decades of warnings about the effects of mental illness and urging those who battle it to seek help, more and more people in the black community are willing to be honest about their mental health issues. The tide is finally turning in the right direction. Even still, one alarming fact remains the same: black people, by enlarge, are not seeking help as often as other races. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), “only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40{d1646ade63b3a031ac820206b781519a0cd128f0b9686dce16129a3782c982e9} of whites.”  While this may not seem alarming, living with untreated mental concerns can negatively affect individuals and the community in many ways including homelessness, incarcerations, and suicide.

Perhaps one explanation for the differences we see among black and whites who seek help for mental health issues lies in the fact that despite recognizing the presence of mental health concerns, black people are more likely to attribute our mental health problems to other issues such as race relations, drugs, the incarceration rate, politics, failing schools and churches, the lack of economic stability and upward mobility and the relationship between black men and women. While these are certainly issues of concern that can lead to an altered state of mental health, naming external circumstances, however real and valid they are, as the sole cause of mental health issues can keep people from taking advantage of the resources available to help manage their mental health.

Producing the same effect, is the fact that years and years of adversity within our community has created  a sense of strength and resiliency that is unparalleled.  Log on to social media on any given day of the week, and you will find posts related to how our community has endured slavery, segregation, the drug epidemic and then the war on that epidemic, police brutality and other mistreatment.  We are constantly reminded that we were not built to break, that we built entire countries with our bare hands, that we rock and that we are pure magic.  And while all of this may be true, actor Jesse Williams said it best in his now famous, very beautiful speech about black culture and our effects on the world: “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.” This one phrase seemed to resonate with people of color more than anything else in that speech. Our applause for this statement seemed to be begging white America to stop treating us like the mythical unicorn, the magical beast whose power could be harnessed to cure the incurable. In just one poetic phrase, Williams summed up our plea to white America:  stop treating us like we’re not human.

And yet, when it comes to our own mental health, we tend to forget our own vulnerability. We act as if we are capable of everything that is thrown at us and no matter the effects, we expect ourselves to just keep going. We forget that just because we are strong and resilient and filled with magic, that we are also human and therefore not immune to humanity. We forget that while depression in others may look like someone that is stuck in bed all day too sad to move, it can also look like your office mate that laughs at all the jokes but criticizes himself and his life constantly. Anxiety may look like the shaky individual who can’t seem to catch their breath when they stand before a room full of people, but it can also look like someone who has racing thoughts right before making a business phone call.
We forget that just because we’ve had to face a lot of challenges on our own doesn’t mean that we have to do it alone. Many have learned to live just below our full potential because seeking help would be seen as a sign of weakness or (cringe!) something “black folks don’t do”.  This myth and others addressed below create a culture of slightly broken individuals who, while they are managing with certain issues, could be doing so much more. If you or someone you know may have a mental health issue here are few things to keep in mind:

  1. Mental health issues are not the same as mental illness.

It is a common misconception that just because someone is struggling with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, then it means that he or she is doomed to a life of medications, psychological evaluations and thoughts, emotions and actions that are beyond their control. More times than not, a mental health issue lacks defining criteria such as a length of time and /or disruption of life that qualify it for mental illness. Grieving a family member may spur a bout with depression but a grieving person would not be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder unless qualifying criteria was met. And it’s important to note that even a qualifying diagnosis of mental illness does not equal a doomed life. With the proper treatment, many people are able to live and thrive with a mental health illness.

  1. Mental health issues or illness is not a sign of weakness.

Having mental health issues can be compared to any other sickness our body endures. It can be something that slightly disrupts our lives like a cold or requires major lifestyle changes like cancer. Regardless, the sickness does not reflect on your strength or weakness as a human. Of course, just like with any other sickness, certain habits and situations can lead to mental health concerns, but mental health issues can affect anyone, and without proper treatment, our bodies will break down in order to fight back.

  1. Help comes in many forms

Help does not have to look like a doctor giving you a prescription (although there is nothing wrong with using medication to manage ailments). Help can be talking to someone outside of your immediate circle or using online resources to add exercises into your day that relieve symptoms. Seeking a professional to help manage symptoms of a mental illness or comfort you through a difficult time could be the help you or someone you love needs to go from surviving to thriving.

The black community has a legacy of facing injustice head on and coming out on the other side. While this can create a sense of invincibility, it is important to know that just because you make it through something, doesn’t mean you emerge unscathed. Systematic injustices, societal pressures, and personal issues can all lead to wear and tear on the mind. When this happens, we should not allow misinformation and a false sense of pride to keep us from getting the help that we need to deal with the things we face. Because think about it, if we are this magical now without accessing the resources available to take care of ourselves mentally and emotionally, imagine what we would be capable of once we tapped into our full potential. Magical? Yes, but so much more. There isn’t a word invented yet that could adequately explain what we would be if we used every tool at our disposal.