“It’s like you’re screaming and no one can hear you.”-Angelina Jolie as Lisa Rowe “Girl, Interrupted”
One of my favorite movies is the 1999 film “Girl, Interrupted” by James Mangold starring Wynona Ryder and Angelina Jolie[who won an Oscar for her performance as Lisa Rowe]. This film takes you inside the 18-month stay of Susanna Kaysen in an 1960’s psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. Showing a raw and uncut look at the struggles of women from various walks of life with mental illness. Funny thing about this film is that it there are no African-American patients on the ward, one of the only black faces in the movie is that of Whoopi Goldberg who plays nurse Valerie Owens. It wasn’t until recently that I noticed the lack of black faces “on the ward” on this film, but then it occurred to me that this was not because the hospital [in the film] was segregated but because even then mental illness in the African-American community is and still is considered taboo. Why? In 2016, when there are so many treatment options is the stigma of mental illness in African-American women still a “thing?”
It seems that in this day and age everyone is so consumed with what they put into their bodies and how they look physically yet, the care for our [black women] mental well-being falls by the wayside. One would be lead to believe that taking care of oneself includes their whole being and not just their outer appearance, because let’s be honest there is nothing beautiful about a mentally incompetent woman. I get it, as a woman in the earliest part of my thirties life can be extremely hectic and at times overwhelming. It seems as if I am constantly moving, never finding or having time to stop and breathe. As a matter of fact there are times when someone has to remind me to breathe and it is normally in those reminders that I stop and realize just how exhausted I am. As a single mother of one very special and busy nearly eleven year-old boy I am constantly in “parent mode”; from the moment my feet hit the floor at 5:45 am I am moving. As a woman who wants more than to be just another face lost in the crowd, I work full-time, attend classes full-time, care for my elderly 92 year-old grandfather, own a business and a long laundry list of other things that I sometimes lose track of. Unlike most I am not a health nut so I do not struggle or stress finding time to work-out on two a days, I just don’t have the time. [Thank GOD for high metabolism] Unlike Kevin Gates, I do get tired, but as a black woman I am supposed to be strong, independent and keep going without complaints. For the past two years (possibly longer) I have pushed through the exhaustion not realizing the damage I was doing to my mental and emotional well-being. Recently my emotional self determined it had enough of my neglect and I unwillingly had a nervous breakdown. [Yes, me a thirty year-old black woman] nothing about my outside says that inside I was having an internal battle with depression. The masks we put on each day tend to way us down more than we realize. It’s often easier to gather up the courage to face what scares us most. I had no choice but to stop and listen to what I’d crowded out with white noise for so long. I was depressed, and not in a “oh you’re just sad” kind of a way, but in a “clinical textbook” kind of way.
“I didn’t try to kill myself. I was trying to make the sh*t stop!”~ Wynona Ryder as Susanna Kaysen “Girl Interrupted”
Depression is a huge health concern among African-Americans — particularly women — but mental health is often stigmatized in the black community. Although it can impact people from all walks of life, cultural habits and historical experiences can cause depression to be expressed and addressed differently among black women. “During slavery, you were supposed to be the strong one. You weren’t supposed to speak. You were supposed to just do,” said Esney M. Sharpe, founder and CEO of the Bessie Mae Women’s Health Center in East Orange, New Jersey, which offers health services for uninsured and underserved women. Because the subject of mental illness is such a taboo one in the African-American community, black people, more specifically black women, are not only one of the least likely groups to be treated or to seek treatment for depression, they’re also less likely than other groups to even acknowledge it as a serious problem because of the shame and embarrassment that it can cause. It is added that the lack of knowledge and understanding of mental illness helps fuel those negative stigmas, without education there is no understanding; so one cannot acknowledge what they do not recognize. The strength of the African-American woman dates back to our ancestors’ times spent in slavery, women weren’t supposed to speak they were supposed to just do; a source of strength for the men being weak was not allowed. Not only do a disturbing number of African-Americans not understand depression to be a serious medical condition, but the stereotype of the “strong black woman” leads many African-American women to believe that they don’t have the luxury or time to experience depression. Some even believe it is only something White people experience (which couldn’t be further from the truth). There is no such thing as “white’s only mental illnesses”.
Being completely transparent in a true effort to help another woman I suffer from a personality disorder, one that allows me to function normally but with a high level of emotion and empathy. I tend to internalize and take things more personal than others may, I take on and absorb the problems of those around me and try to “fix” them not realizing that I am only doing more harm to myself then I am being a help to them. There is no cure or magic pill for personality disorders but understanding and having a handle on your diagnosis is the key to healthy living. African-Americans tend to cope with by using informal resources like the church, family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. In many cases they seek treatment from ministers and physicians as opposed to mental health professionals. I understand, I really do and being steadfast in my faith has been a saving grace but so has my doctor and my therapist. We tend to live under the assumption that taking medication is what solidifies you as “crazy.” I say “Sometimes the only way to sane is to go a little crazy.”
“Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified.”~Susanna Kaysen
Our roles as the backbone of our race has not and will change, the strength of the Black woman is uncanny and unlike that of any other race. Unfortunately, you are no good to yourself, your family (especially your children) or your community or those around you if you don’t care for yourself. Take a few moments each day before starting your day to love on yourself, to look at the reflection in the mirror, address HER needs and understand HER feelings. More importantly educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of depression and seek help if you need it, there is no shame in that. I know this is a difficult but necessary conversation. There is no one who is going to love you more than you love you.
Take care of yourselves!
Peace and Blessings