Being Black and Happy Means Being Real about Your Mental Health
By: Sierrah Travis
Edited by: Tanishia Jeboda, Editor for BlackDVM Network and Priscilla Gutiérrez, Chief of Staff for The Confess Project and social justice activist
There comes a time in everyone’s life when they are faced with the question: Am I truly happy? I asked myself this same question during the spring semester of my third year of veterinary medical school. It seemed as though the connections that I once thought I had with some of my classmates were slowly dissipating from a lack of communication, understanding, or just lack of consideration altogether. On top of that, any potential romantic relationship was doomed for failure because too many guys are selfish and I am selfless.
So there I was, feeling complete loneliness as I questioned all of the failed relationships in my life. Luckily, I had friends around me that advocated for mental health. My good friend recommended that I see a therapist. “Therapist” was a strange word for me as someone who grew up with a Black mother who always told us “to cast your cares upon the Lord” and “God will fix it.” Not to mention that the word “therapist” also had some stigma tied to it because it is often weaponized against women who speak up for themselves. People usually cannot resist the urge to utter statements like: “You’re crazy! You should go see a therapist.”
In all honesty, growing up my friends were my “therapists”‒and they still are part time when my therapy sessions cost money during school breaks. I would type or text novels to my friends all night long on bebo.com (who remembers that lol?), Yahoo instant messenger, and on my first Android cell phone. Since then, I have upgraded to sending voice messages on my iPhone. My friends were and are great. I have been extremely blessed to have a best female friend and confidant who shows continuous support throughout the most important stages of my life. As one relationship devolved into less communication due to an increase in responsibilities and priorities and embarking on different life milestones; another friend stepped right in to fill the void. My girlfriends were always there to support me and offer their advice. However, what I needed the most‒and still need today‒is impartiality. I need for someone to look at both sides of a situation without any biases and critique both sides. Fortunately, as my girlfriends and I have matured, our conversations about certain situations have become more impartial. Nevertheless, the conversations usually start with fiery support of my thought processes and actions in the situation. Although it is entertaining and funny to resolve my frustration through these conversations, the advice is still biased.
I think that faith is a beautiful thing and helps in many situations. I take pride in my faith and work to deepen my spirituality. I do also think that some African-Americans are more likely to advise other African-Americans to go to church and speak to the pastor, rather than seek help from a mental health professional. This referral may not be in the best interest of a person’s mental health. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental health illness per year, irrespective of race, color, or creed. Adult Black/African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than Whites, but are less likely to seek treatment compared to Whites and more likely to prematurely end treatment. However, Blacks attend the most religious services when compared to other races. It seems that we often seek help in the wrong place. Just as we can go to a doctor and pray when we are sick, we can also go to a therapist and pray when we are experiencing mental illness.
I decided to make an appointment with the counseling center at my college after realizing that I had more healing to do as I continued to be confronted with these same questions: Did my failed friendships stem from my estranged relationships with my siblings? Were my failed romantic relationships the product of being a witness to my parents’ failed marriage? What will make me happy and how do I achieve happiness? Do I have some unresolved trauma that is buried somewhere deep inside of me? Do I overreact in some instances and underreact in others for self-defense and self-preservation, respectively? Why do I always feel like I am in a daze?
My therapist has a warm, delicate demeanor and talks almost in a whisper in an oasis style office that is filled with many plants and a touch of natural light. One of our therapy dogs napped comfortably on one of the blue chairs in front of me. I immediately liked the aura of the room. I began by telling my therapist a little bit about why I wanted to start counseling. After I finished speaking, my therapist realized that I kept circling back to the issue of not getting enough sleep. I was not even aware that I was doing that. My therapist suggested that I may be suffering from sleep deprivation, which could be affecting my mood and my ability to concentrate as well as my overall health. My therapist then printed out helpful sleep hygiene tips in order to improve my sleeping habits. We set small goals to push my bedtime back to a normal time, such as sleeping at midnight instead of 4 AM.
This is why your friend should not be your therapist. Yes, my friends criticized me for not getting enough sleep; but, my friends could not provide the professional outlook and recommendations that my therapist did. Another “superpower” that therapists wield is the ability to validate our emotions. How many times has someone told you that you are over-reacting, angry, or being too emotional? My therapist told me that all emotions have their reason and purpose; that every emotion is valid and even protective at times. For example, the emotion of disgust from smelling spoiled food products protects us from food poisoning.
Therapists can also help with processing our emotions. My therapist helped me understand the guilt that I felt from not spending more time with my grandmother before she passed away. Additionally, my therapist helped me to see that certain actions of a so-called friend were performative to protect their image. I have significant work to do and look forward to continuing my sessions and diving deeper into my familial, platonic, and romantic relationships.
Today is a new age and the stigma associated with therapy has dwindled significantly among millennials. Mental health care is now highly advocated especially in Black and Brown communities. It was gaining popularity before the pandemic, but since then it has exploded because of the increased rates of depression in response to COVID-19, quarantine, and the global awareness of systemic racism and its manifestation throughout the world. A daily dose of mental health advocacy is prominent over social media. Every day I see advertisements on Instagram about mental health resources. There are also many accounts centered exclusively on mental health and wellness resources for Black people.
Quarantine is not easy for anyone. Many of us developed a fear of grocery shopping that is now very meticulous and requires wearing a mask, disinfecting carts, social distancing, and disinfecting everything upon returning home. Personally, I am afraid for my parents, who are both above 60 years of age. Additionally, I was stressed over my father initially believing that coronavirus was a hoax and refusing to wear a mask. His denial and refusal were frustrating because I took an oath to protect public health. I eventually convinced him to wear a mask, which eased my anxiety. My mother has additional comorbidities that place her in the higher-risk group. I was deathly afraid of potentially giving her the virus, so I always wore my mask and social distanced‒which means refraining from hugging my own mother. Furthermore, I was stressed about my finances because I thought I was ineligible for the stimulus payment. Lastly, my grandmother passed away during the pandemic and her homegoing service was not what I imagined it to be. The pandemic has changed all of our lives and has affected our way of living, loving, protecting, and grieving.
So, what has helped me cope during the pandemic? Here is my list:
My family, friends, and sorority.
Grieving together with family was very healing.
My friends and sorority sisters showered my family and me with sympathy gifts.
I stayed in touch with my family and friends.
I started reading daily devotional books and different Bible verses to start off my day.
As detailed above.
I tried different recipes that I have always wanted to try and made dinner for my dad and me almost every night.
My classmate sent me a free trial of Purple Carrot that I really enjoyed.
Many choreographers were gracious enough to host free dance lessons on their Instagram Live during the pandemic. Some of my favorites were Cisco Ruelas (@ciscochoreography) and Aliya Janell (@thealiyajanell).
I took time every day to be thankful for all of the blessings in my life in spite of everything going on with the pandemic.
I became even more grateful for what I was able to do before the pandemic (i.e. hugging my loved ones).
Finding new COVID-19 friendly activities to do.
I went for more walks.
I read by the pond.
My friends and I went on outdoor sculpture garden trails, hiking trails, and outdoor wineries and farmer’s markets that practiced CDC guidelines.
I started planning tennis again, which by the way is a great sport for social distancing.
If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or if you are seeking counseling please see this CDC website for hotline numbers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website for resources, or your school’s counseling center. If you are searching for Black therapists in your area, see Psychology Today and click on find a therapist, search your area, and select African-American. Many therapists are holding sessions over video chats or over the phone for their health and the health of their clients during the pandemic.
I would like to thank Dr. Tierra Price and the BlackDVMNetwork for allowing me the opportunity to write this piece. Be sure to follow BlackDVMNetwork on Instagram @blackdvmnetwork and become a member!