Black Mental Health Matters: What We Can Do for Ourselves
Updated: Oct 31
"You are your best thing.” — Toni Morrison
Black Americans have been fighting since the day we were forcibly removed from our native land and enslaved by European settlers to build this supposed “land of the free and home of the brave”. We have been fighting tirelessly for this country to see us as human beings worthy of freedom, respect, opportunity, and joy. Most recently, the public health crisis of police brutality has been highlighted in the media and given the attention it has always deserved, which has sparked global protest for Black lives. Yet another battle that Black people have to endure.
This ongoing fight doesn’t come without its consequences. Anything from racial microaggressions to internalized racism that are born out of these racist, oppressive systems that we as Black people inevitably interact with every day, can negatively impact our perceived sense of safety, belonging, and self-esteem. When this happens, our mental health begins to suffer. In a 2018 study published in the American Psychologist, researchers found that perceived racial/ethnic discrimination correlated positively with depression and negatively with self-esteem in Black adolescents. Even within adults, public health research has found that Black adults are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than White adults.
As Black people living in America, our journey with mental health is often overlooked in this country in general and even within our own communities. No one can ignore that the mental health stigma is REAL. But where did it come from? One reason is an overall distrust in health care professionals due to past exploitation and mistreatment. Another reason is that seeking mental health help is often seen as a sign of personal weakness or failure. In the grand scheme of the world, especially considering all of the injustices our people have endured by our own government and our own fellow citizens, no less, our own individual mental struggles seem miniscule or irrelevant. Therefore, struggling with your mental health hardly seems like a crisis. So, we just persist because that’s what we do.
Growing up in the Black community, the values of perseverance, persistence, and resilience through pain are often instilled in us at a very young age, especially through images such as the “Strong Black Woman” and the “Hypermasculine Black Man” who show no signs of weakness or distress. While these values are necessary survival tactics that we’ve developed over time, they don’t give us much space to actually feel the pain because for some of us, if we stopped to feel it, it might be too much. While still holding this as truth, we owe it to ourselves to be able to grieve the constant threats to our humanity, which is an unfair burden placed on Black people at birth.
I want to push us to challenge our assumptions. What if we were to instead normalize difficulties with mental health? Or see seeking help as a sign of initiative and growth as opposed to weakness and failure? What would be possible for me? For you? For your friends and family? We could potentially find healing and peace. That is why I want you to think beyond what you have considered possible in the past and ask:
“What can I do for myself now?”
Acknowledge and Validate Your Pain
It’s okay to say to yourself and others that you’re not okay. Your pain and hurt matters, no matter how much you or other people may minimize it. There’s also no expiration date on unresolved feelings of pain. It’s never too late to address them and validate those experiences.
Tip: Make a list of things you can control. This will help you in the process of accepting your experiences as they are, even if you wish they could’ve been different.
Ask for What You Need
When asking for what you need, you may feel burdensome, not wanting to overstep, or even feel too needy. One thing to tell yourself is that you’re worthy of all that life has to offer, and you deserve to have what you want and need. Just because what you’re asking for may be different from what others may be asking for, doesn’t make it less than or unreasonable.
Self-compassion is simply being kind to and patient with yourself in those moments where you feel like you’re not doing enough, failing, or struggling. If the “shoulds” start to come up, tell yourself that you’re doing the best you can right now in this moment. I have recently been using this practice in my day-to-day and have seen the impact on my mood when I’m able to ignore the “shoulds” and focus on what I have the capacity for each day.
Tip: Don’t discount the positives - write down things that you’ve been able to do well this week.
Make Time for Yourself
I fully acknowledge that taking time for yourself is a privilege for some of us, especially if this means taking time off of work (which can bring up worry about getting left behind because you constantly have to prove yourself to keep up with your white counterparts) or if you have many people who depend on you. But, taking time for yourself can also mean just taking a moment in your morning routine to set intentions for your day. You get to decide.
Talk to People You Trust
This could be family (biological or chosen), friends, coworkers, our Talklet listeners, or anyone who you can go to that will listen empathetically and nonjudgmentally. The ones who care about you would never want you to suffer alone. Let them in.
Recognize How Stress and Anxiety Affect Your Mind and Body
Self-awareness is often the first step in the healing process, so it’s important to find the connection between your mind and body. Once you recognize this, you can brainstorm healthy ways of coping.
For example, when you feel stressed or anxious…
Do you isolate yourself?
Do you lash out at others that you care about?
Do you overeat or undereat?
Do you feel a never-ending pain in your stomach?
It’s important to remember that you can’t control your thoughts and feelings, but you can control your behavior in response to them. Stress isn’t just mental. If it persists, it can manifest into physical symptoms as well, which is one of the reasons why understanding the connection between your own mind and body is so important.
Establish a Relaxation Technique
Some examples include:
Listen to music
Find something you can do that will help ground you and bring you back into the present moment, as opposed to worrying about the past or future. Think about finding this practice before you reach your tipping point, so once you notice yourself feeling too anxious or overwhelmed, you already know what you can do to bring yourself back down. I have personally found the breathing techniques used in mindfulness to be helpful when I’m feeling overly anxious. It helps me to calm down and remind myself that I’m safe.
Limit News and Social Media Exposure
It’s okay to not want to watch Black bodies and lives being brutalized and dehumanized. It’s traumatic AND it’s our reality, not just something that’s on the news or a fictional storyline in a movie or TV show. When you are already feeling down or overwhelmed, it might not be the best idea to expose yourself to more trauma. Take a few days to focus on your own responsibilities and center your own needs.
Reconnect to Your Culture
Assimilation is harmful to everyone, but as Black people, it’s radical to connect to our roots and empower ourselves through that ancestral connection. Because of our history as slaves and the years of violent separation of many Black families in America, some of us may not know where we’ve come from. In this case, go as far back as you can, even if it’s just reestablishing traditions you loved as a child. Doing this is important in the process of forming a strong sense of identity, especially for us growing up around many negative images of Blackness. Because if you don’t know who you are, someone else will tell you. Be unapologetically you.
Connect to your Spirituality
In the Black community, religion and spirituality are central. You may not agree with every part of your religion, but it’s okay to honor what is helpful and ignore what is harmful, which will be different for everyone. Don’t be afraid to create your own individualized way of practicing your religion and spirituality. It’s more about feeling grounded and connected to a higher power, not about how you go about doing it. Adopt those rituals that can honor that within you and help you stay centered.
Find a Therapist
Committing to therapy is a hard step to take and one that requires courage and vulnerability. It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to confide in a therapist yet. But, if you feel like life is getting to be too hard and overwhelming mentally, I want to challenge you to give therapy a chance and step out of your comfort zone. I also fully acknowledge the distrust in health professionals that some black people often feel because of the history of mistreatment and inhumane experimentation on black bodies in the healthcare fields. But now, we are regaining control and reclaiming our time. You have the power to choose your therapist, so if you feel more comfortable with a black therapist or therapist of color, that’s your choice and your right. Finding the right therapist is a task, but I personally attest to it being worth it in the end.
By no means do I think I could possibly address all the specific needs and circumstances of every Black individual in this country when it comes to mental health, but I hope there was at least one idea or practice that you could take away that can help you begin or continue your mental health journey.
Other Mental Health Resources
The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal system, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness, and Get the Help You Deserve - Rheeda Walker, PhD
Therapy for Black Girls
Therapy for Black Men
National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
Benner, A. D., Wang, Y., Shen, Y., Boyle, A. E., Polk, R., & Cheng, Y. (2018). Racial/ethnic discrimination and well-being during adolescence: A meta-analytic review. American Psychologist, 73(7), 855-883. doi:10.1037/amp0000204
Jacoby, S. (2016, July 1). How Racism Affects Mental Health - & What We Can Do About It. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2016/07/115423/racism-mental-health-effects
NHIS - Tables of Summary Health Statistics. (2019, November 05). Retrieved from https://ftp.cdc.gov/pub/Health_Statistics/NCHS/NHIS/SHS/2018_SHS_Table_A-7.pdf
By: Zakiya Harris
About the author and Talklet Listener, Zakiya:
Zakiya Harris is a second year Master’s student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration graduating in Spring 2021. After graduation, she is looking to obtain her LCSW. The focus of her work is on mental health as it relates to attachment, relationships, and trauma. She is especially interested in serving black children and adolescents, families, and communities in the fight for equitable mental health services.
Schedule a Talklet session with Zakiya once we launch!