because she didn't know any better
she stayed alive
among the tired and lonely
not waiting always wanting
needing a good night's rest
- Nikki Giovanni, "Introspection"
How many times have we repeated the words of Fannie Lou Hammer, whether out loud or in silence? Slavery, years of oppression and discrimination have contributed to our need to hide our feelings. We have generations and generations of habitual hiding and have become experts on hiding our sadness and refusing to name the pain. We hide it from the medical profession and ourselves. Our illness goes unnoticed, untreated or mistreated. Untreated depression can lead to death by suicide and violent behavior. We need to lose the fear and name the pain.
“Many times when African American women consult health professionals they are frequently told that they are hypertensive, run down, tense or nervous. They will be prescribed antihypertensive, vitamins, or mood elevating pills; or they may be informed to lose weight, learn to relax, get a change of scenery, or get more exercise…” Barbara Jones Warren, R.N., M.S., Ph.D. When we talk to our friends we commiserate and share our feelings of woe believing this is just the plight of a Black woman. These sistah group conversations validate what we hear from many of the doctors. In reality, African-American women live with a triple jeopardy status that places us at risk for depression. We live in a majority-dominated society that frequently devalues our ethnicity, culture and gender.
Formal statistics on depression in African American women is either uncertain or non-existent because the research is scarce. Many women are unwilling to participate in research studies because they are afraid the information will be misinterpreted and will be used against them. The few studies that have been done show African American women report having more depressive symptoms than African American men and twice the rate of European Caucasian women.
If depression was linked to anything other than mental illness, it would be called an epidemic and measures would be taken to find a cure.
The stigma of living with a mental illness is so ingrained in us that we are afraid to inform our employers or report the information on insurance forms. Those of us with health insurance would rather pay for mental health services “out of pocket” than have it on our insurance record. We lose the ability to ask for accommodations at work because we won’t reveal our medical condition. We believe that Black people have to be ten times better than White folks. So we hide our pain, because to show it would be a sign of weakness.
Many Black women hide their pain out of fear of losing their children to the courts. African American children in Minnesota are seven times more likely to be placed out of their homes than their European Caucasian counterparts. (Juvenile Out-of-Home Placement Task Force Report, MN Departments of Corrections and Human Service, January, 2001.)
But sometimes when we hide our pain we overreact to our children’s misbehavior. We may yell at the top of our lungs, punish too severely, give them the silent treatment or withhold our warmth. Unfortunately for our children this need to hide our pain results in pain. It takes away from them what they need most—our nurturing and love.
If we as women suffer in silence, our men are imprisoned by the silence. Male children are told from babies to “act like a man” or just “suck it up.” We are preparing our male children for a life of pain and silence.
Who do we talk to when we see a young child gunned down in the street by another child? What can we say to the family of a 15-year-old who is tried as an adult for murder? How much does it hurt to see our young men and women selling their bodies? How do we react when we learn that the neighborhood basketball team we have seen playing in the park for years is one of the most vicious gangs in our town and they are recruiting our sons daily? How do we feel when we have lost our jobs and we go down to the public aid office to receive the much needed money and we are treated like second class citizens?
We need to verbally react in a way that addresses that pain. We need to express our emotions in a way that addresses the pain we see every day. Keeping that pain inside is killing us and our loves ones.
The good news is that there is effective treatment. We must educate our community on the early warning signs and symptoms of depression and the many treatment options available. We must not allow the stigma of mental illness to get in our way of obtaining the appropriate treatment for this brain disorder. Depression is an illness of the brain, not a character defect or a moral failing.
While we have good reason to be depressed, we need to find good reason to talk about our pain. We cannot hide it; doing so is dangerous. It is not only dangerous to us, but also to our loved ones. We perpetuate the dysfunction of mental unhealthiness when we don’t acknowledge our pain or seek help. We need to seek help from a mental health professional, and find support from our community. I once heard culture is the glue that keeps the mind, body and spirit together. What does a healthy mind, body and spirit mean to you? Where do you go to get that support? Connecting all three is important to our overall health.
NAMI Minnesota Programs
NAMI Minnesota has African American specific support groups and education groups for family members who have loved ones with a mental illness and for people living with a mental illness. Please call Matthea Little Smith at NAMI Minnesota for more information to receive a subscription to our African American Outreach E-News.
“Save our souls; plain and simple. Save our souls” . …
Terrie Williams Black Pain: We Just Look Like We Are Not Hurting, January, 2008