Out of all the many taboos in the Black community, discussing mental illness is one of the topics parents and families shy away from along with sexual health, sexuality, and spirituality. Mental illness, whether diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or undiagnosed, causes discomfort and embarrassment for many people who have not yet found solitude in their life. The health of our minds is not dependent on any cultural or racial backgrounds, no race is innately less or more likely to have mental health issues. Yet, one can have traumatic experiences that are linked to their cultural or racial backgrounds. There are many things that can affect the mental health of a human, like bullying, keeping secrets from family and friends, weight perceptions, financial instability, poverty, wealth, lack of emotional support from family, lack of emotional experience from a lover, and even the experiences someone encounters while at work or school. Furthermore, depending on your upbringing, education or lack thereof, and ‘chemical brain balance’, the way your brain interprets information can be very unpredictable. In an American society that is believed to be participating in a post-racial era, our experiences as citizens continue to be separated by our class, race, sexuality and gender preferences. I grew up in a country whose government and media did not do a great job in making Black people, or people with African and indigenous ancestry feel adequate, worthy, or comfortable. Anyone who has ever felt threatened, oppressed, or offended by the language used to describe their existence may have a valid response in the way their brain interprets those experiences. I’ve found it very positive to discuss mental health with others, first by explaining what mental health means. Secondly, I like to identify the experiences in our lives that changed our perception in both positive and negative ways. Thirdly, I like to discuss the health of those traumas and how they play out in our daily lives. Lastly, now that the traumas have been acknowledged, it’s necessary to make a conscious decision on the progression and stagnation of your human experience by being aware of the way your mind interprets information that affects you emotionally and spiritually. In my experience of conversation and research, there’s three experiences I found to cause some of the first traumatic responses to the brain; family, education, and media. Though mental health is triggered differently by everyone, I’ll focus on how family, education, and media play a part in our human experience.
The Intersectionality of Blackness & Mental Health
A family to a human is like a wolf to its pack, some packs have a strong leader and some may cry alone, but the family structure is the union that bridges people together.The power dynamics of a family can conclude to who makes the most money, or simply the man of the house. Single family homes, which are very common, can struggle with accompanying neither financial stability and a two-parent coexistence. Therefore, trauma can erupt before a child is born depending on the circumstance the child will be born into. In many families, the authoritarian approach brings power, discipline and aggression to the family structure when discerning the hierarchy of power. The parents are at the top, they decide on all things like the child’s ability to watch television, hang out with friends, which academic activities they will join, what sexuality preference is appropriate, what colors and clothes are appropriate for their gender, and the religion they will practice. Though it is healthy for a family to have a foundation of social awareness for their child to stand on, it is also progressive to be aware of how those actions will affect the development of your child’s mental health. Think about this, every time you use your power to make a decision for someone outside of yourself, you are affecting their mental health. How? Well, when you use power to make a decision for someone else, you are forcing them to agree or comply with your demand, whether that makes them happy or not. The moment someone’s power is taken away, their brain immediately translates how it makes them feel emotionally and spiritually. When those power dynamics go unexplained and unanswered, it leaves the powerless individual to draw conclusions and reasons as to why they do or didn’t deserve such treatment. The family home is usually the first place a child feels connected to, if the family home is not a safe space for the child to express themselves, this can cause mental trauma.
Our parents are our first teachers, but eventually, we rely on our academic teachers to school us on subjects that we have yet to find useful. Nonetheless, while in those classrooms and play yards, children can experience many things that go unseen and unheard. Here are some ways a child’s mental health can be affected while in school:
The teacher may not show them positive attention.
Classmates may not show them positive attention.
Children bully other children based on their speed of learning, clothing, height, weight, race, gender, and speech capabilities.
Children may not see other students that look like them or resemble their family. Making them aware of how different they look from other students. If that goes unexplained, the brain will subconsciously develop emotions around that thought.
Physical fights with other students.
Sexual abuse by classmates or teachers.
Not being accepted into a social or academic group.
Not succeeding in sport try outs.
Not having enough money for extra food.
Having a bad day at home before school.
Having a bad day at school after going home.
Children may not be able to verbally express how they are feeling, but it does not take away from the fact that they are feeling something. Many things go unnoticed in school systems simply because it is a teacher’s job to teach, not counsel, console, or empathize. As a public school student, I rarely received empathy or consolation from my teachers. I didn’t feel safe talking to my teachers about anything and if something bad happened to me, I tried to handle it myself or act like it never happened. No matter the public institution, whether it’s private, public, homeschooled, or charter, there are experiences associated with education that can make a child/teenager uncomfortable. The way a teacher treats an A student and a F student can vary depending on the heart of the instructor. A student is either congratulated or scolded for their participation in class which brings up emotions of anxiety, disappointment, happiness, or good spirit. Now that you’re placed in an institution that grades you on all of the work you do, you’re faced with accomplishing tasks that do not hold importance to your life. Here’s when power dynamics comes into play. When someone is forcing you to do something that you may not want to do, you’re power is being taken away. In a country like the U.S. where school is part of tradition, many kids are not fully aware of what school is for. We live in such a routine society, that even as conscious parents or adults, we do without thinking. Again, the power shift comes back because most parents/adults feel that they don’t need to explain anything to a child in the first place. It’s interesting how there’s a common phrase, “college isn’t for everybody”, which insinuates that not only are people accepted on a selective basis, but college is not created to fit everyone’s mental capabilities.