In most cases, mental health in the black community is still a taboo subject. This is a huge problem considering black people are actually more vulnerable to mental illnesses. Many of us need help but are too afraid to even ask because it’s not something often talked about, and this fear ultimately gets passed down to the younger generations. It’s time to break the stigma.
I thought a good place to start is to share a few words from some great black women in my life. (I’m lucky enough to call them my friends!) Communication is key because you never know how someone is feeling until they talk about it. Mental health issues aren’t always visible. To get the conversation going, I asked my friends to share their stories and tips. I’m turning this into a series just because one blog post isn’t enough and there are so many voices out there that need to be heard. Welcome to part 1. If you’re a black person, I hope the following stories and tips will make you feel less alone and assure you that it’s ok to speak up about what you’re going through. If you’re not black, I hope this will open your eyes more to particular issues black people face. I hope this encourages you to reach out to your black friends and to offer them a listening ear.
An immigrant child’s struggle with identity
A letter to my younger self
Dear 10 year old self, I know someone called you an oreo today and you ignorantly thought it was a creative way of describing you as sweet. You did not see the double edge sword trying to highlight the disparity between the blackness of your skin with the ‘whiteness’ of your character. You did not know this was foreshadowing of the years you would spend wrestling with your identity, always too white for the black group and too black for the white group.
Dear 12 year old self, I know you are now realising you wish you could speak your mother tongue. Mother tongue I am sorry that I traded your rich tones to perfect another language. Mother tongue, I did not appreciate the wisdom you can convey, your language loaded with proverbs that lose their gravitas as mother tries to translate it from her mother tongue into the tongue that I chose to adopt. I am sorry mother tongue, I was preoccupied with speaking ‘proper English’ so the kids won’t laugh when the teachers ask me to repeat what I just said yet again, my Igede accent too strong for this English class room. So before I fully understood what I was doing, I traded the precious jewel of my mother tongue to compress myself into a box I was never designed to fit into.
Dear 16 year old self, I am glad your views on your natural hair are beginning to change, no longer striving to meet the beauty standards shoved down your throat by pop culture. Girl fix your crown, that afro sparkles on you.
Dear 23 year old self, I know though you feel immensely proud to be Nigerian, you still feel like a tourist in your homeland, not fully understanding the currency, the history or the politics. However don’t let that stop you from embracing the experience of being back home with both hands. Bounce along with the car as it dances on the neglected roads telling you, you must be close to the village now (if you know, you know). Be refreshed by the air here, surrounded by a wealth of trees, what beauty. Watch those stunning sunsets on the back of a motorbike and just be present. There is so much richness to your culture from the food, to the clothes to the music, enjoy it all. Tell stories and laugh well into the night with your close and distant relatives, your teeth glistening like the stars above you, let that joy and peace rock you to sleep. Swallow your pride a little as you struggle to carry a bucket of water on your head, and watch girls younger than you carry it with ease. Your heart breaks a little as you imagine how different your lives must look.
Dear current self, I am glad to know you are no longer trying to ‘find yourself’, your identity so beautifully rooted in Christ. Yes, some people may still call you an oreo but you no longer resent that because you know through the struggle of merging your two worlds, the one you were born in and the one you grew up in, you have become a diverse and resilient individual. You are uniquely and beautifully made so be your extra Igede oyinbo self.
Grace and peace to you.
Get to know how you feel.
A good place to start with working on your wellbeing, is to acknowledge when you don’t feel 100%. Naming how you feel out loud can be therapeutic. Examining your emotions can become stressful, if you’re tied up with why you should or shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. Try not to complicate it with overthinking or rationalising away emotions (there’s time for reflecting later). It’s okay to feel frustrated about a news segment even if it doesn’t directly involve you, or to be disappointed in yourself if you aren’t comfortable calling out racist remarks as soon as they happen. For your long term wellbeing, try taking time out and allowing yourself to be as you are in the moment. Find a safe space. Close your eyes. Feel how you feel. What is going on in your mind and body?
Now you’re probably feeling a bit rubbish (sorry), what’s next? Acknowledging how you feel, goes hand in hand with expressing how you feel. Keeping unsightly emotions inside may avoid discomfort in the short term. However, not processing how you feel, allows all the ugly to build up and eventually you’ll explode. So, once you have an idea of how you feel, it’s time to clear your headspace by working through it. This may look like sharing your thoughts with the person involved, although more often than not, it’s useful to reflect on your emotions beforehand, so you can thoughtfully respond rather than react. Expressing your emotions could also look like… sharing with a trusted person writing thoughts down writing song lyrics creating or playing music creating poetry creating art singing (if you don’t have the words but someone else does) dancing. If you’re not sure what works for you, why not experiment with a few of the suggestions above? The aim is to find a way that turns your thoughts into a positive outlet. Letting your negative emotions out, means they do not need to take up all your energy and headspace.
If nothing changes, nothing changes.
It’s important not to deny your emotions, but it’s not always healthy to remain stuck in them! Reflect on why you feel how you feel. Which situations or habits negatively impact your mental health? Is it a particular person, social media accounts you follow, the news you consume, your work environment? How could you manage these things in a way that prioritises positive mental health? What boundaries do you need to put in place? While others can and will negatively affect your mental health, the only person you can control is you. Reflect on whether their continued presence is something you can agree ground rules on or even limit from your life. Of course, cutting stressors out of your life is not always possible, so what can you do to add to your wellbeing?
Find your balance.
Many of us only practice self-care when we’re already overwhelmed and about to fall apart. Yet, we wouldn’t put off watering a plant, until all but one leaf fell off. Like most plants, our minds need watering daily. Embedding self-care activities into your routine will regularly top up your ability to handle stressful demands. You could even write them on your to do list so, you have the satisfaction of crossing them out when you’re done! Regular self-care does not have to be time consuming or expensive. Self-care stereotypically involves fruity facemasks and soothing foot spas. Your self-care may involve listening to a podcast while you get ready or while eating breakfast. Sitting outside to have lunch. Taking brain breaks throughout your day. Calling a friend. Having an early night. Or practising a meaningful outlet. At the heart of self-care is doing something enjoyable, just for yourself.
You might be thinking that even on your last leg, you are too busy to take time out for yourself. Although those ‘unimportant’ things we do, just for ourselves, are the first things we drop when we’re tight on time, they are often the things that keep us afloat. There is only so long we can go without prioritising our mental health. For our minds to flourish, we need to find and maintain a balance. If you’re overwhelmed and busy, finding your balance may look like removing things from your workload to make room for self-care activities. Supporting our own wellbeing enables us to be there for others when they need us.
Ask for help.
We all need help from time to time and managing your mental health is not something you have to do alone. If you’d work better with some guidance, there are mental health professionals who would love to work with you on your wellbeing. Have a chat with your doctor to find out what support is offered in your local area.
Talking about struggling with your mental health can often feel uncomfortable, especially if you’re sharing it for the first time. Your conversation will not be shared without your permission, unless you present a risk to yourself or others. Crucially, your mental health professional is there to support you, so being open and honest enables them to get you the best support possible.
Useful UK Support
Samaritans: call 116 123 for FREE, day or night.
Crisis line: text SHOUT to 85258.
NHS out of hours: call 111 if you can’t contact your GP
A shift is happening with so many resources out there as well as more and more people talking about it. Let’s finally break the stigma. No one should have to suffer alone.