Why We Need to Talk Openly About Mental Illness

It’s been nearly two months since I wrote a blog post revealing my lifelong battle with anxiety. I had just been officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and had started taking Zoloft to treat it.

Every post I’ve written about struggling with mental illness since that one has been well received. People have disclosed their own struggles to me and have applauded my honesty.

But yesterday I had a moment of regret.

Did I make a mistake by sharing one of the most vulnerable parts of myself? Could my candidness come back to bite me one day by someone using my disorder against me? Are there people who read these posts who don’t understand and just think I’m crazy?

Most of my concerns are probably just my anxiety talking, but still…Why did I do this? But then I remember why I have to continue to share my story.

43.8 Million

Nearly 43.8 million – or 1 in 5 adults – in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. And roughly 21% of kids aged 13-18; and 13% of kids aged 8-15, experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.

Far too many people experience conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and bipolar disorder for us to continue to be ashamed or uncomfortable talking about it.

Every person who is too embarrassed to admit their suffering because of possible judgement is a person who may not get the help they need. And untreated mental illness can have real consequences for society as a whole.

Here are some troubling statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness – or NAMI:

  • An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders;
  • Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition;
  • 70% of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness;
  • Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year; and
  • Just over half (50.6%) of children aged 8-15 received mental health services in the previous year.

Black Mental Health Matters

When I was diagnosed with anxiety, I turned to Google to search for stories from people who shared similar experiences. While stories were plenty, there was one thing I noticed. Where were the stories of people who looked like me? I really had to search thoroughly to find experiences from black people.

It’s not like people in the black community are immune to mental illness. In fact, African Americans sometimes experience more severe forms of mental health conditions because of unmet needs and barriers. And we’re also more likely to experience factors that increase the risk for developing a mental condition, like homelessness and exposure to violence, according to NAMI.

Still, I feel like a certain stigma remains in our community. I was hesitant to share my condition with my own family because I was afraid of being judged and looking weak. My. Own. Family. And even now that I’ve opened up, I feel like there’s a level of discomfort when I talk about it.

Research shows this stigma is due to factors like a lack of information and misunderstanding; reluctance and inability to access mental health services; over-reliance on faith and spirituality; and health provider bias and inequality of care. Monica Coleman is a professor and blogger. She told The Huffington Post:

In many ways, I do think that there is a greater stigma among African American culture than among white cultures. I live in southern California, and many white people will freely reference “seeing a therapist” in normal conversation. Black people don’t do that. Seeing a therapist is generally seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. There is still an active mythos of “the strong black woman,” who is supposed to be strong and present and capable for everyone in her family — and neglects her own needs. In the midst of a depressive episode, I had a friend say to me, “We are the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery. Whatever you’re going through cannot be that bad.” I was so hurt and angry by that statement. No, depression isn’t human trafficking, genocide or slavery, but it is real death-threatening pain to me. And of course, there are those who did not survive those travesties. But that comment just made me feel small and selfish and far worse than before. It made me wish I had never said anything at all.

I want to be that relatable face that I needed for other people who may be dealing with the same struggles. Representation matters – even when it comes to mental health.

African American Mental Health Voices from NAMI from Amanda Wang on Vimeo.

A Place Of Support

Mental illness doesn’t care if you white, black or brown. You are susceptible if you’re rich or poor. Sometimes it’s a result of things that go on in your life or in your body. And sometimes you feel the way you do for no apparent reason.

I suffered in silence for nearly three decades because I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I felt too embarrassed to reach out for help. Even now, I still feel like the number of people in my life that can really understand what I’m going through – or are open enough to try and understand – is abysmally small.

I originally started this blog because I just love writing. But now I hope it serves another purpose. I want it to be a place where people who are experiencing mental illness can come and see that yes, they may struggle. But there is also hope in trying to get better.

I’ve known people in my lifetime who have fallen so deep into conditions like depression, they felt the only way out was to take their own life. I’ve had many, many, many of those dark moments in my life. So if sharing what I’ve gone through can save even one person, then whatever judgement that comes from my openness is well worth it.

These are the reasons I have to continue to talk about my struggles with mental illness. And why we all need to talk a lot more about mental health.

2 thoughts on “Why We Need to Talk Openly About Mental Illness

  1. filthydee123 says:

    “So if sharing what I’ve gone through can save even one person, then whatever judgement that comes from my openness is well worth it.” Amen! Thank you for sharing Paulette. Right on the money.


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