This post is part of the month long series “Stuck in my Head”. Normal posting resumes in April
It is difficult to live with mental illness. There are harmful stigmas, exaggerated myths (such as the ever popular insanity=creativity myth) and a lot of misinformation which prevents proper treatment. Many people, diagnosed or not, suffer from mental illness but it is still met with suspicion or treated as if it is an honor to have your mind pretty much stage a mutiny against your better sensibilities. It is more complex when race and gender is taken into account.
Mental illness is not imagination run amok no more than physical illness is just an act. There is the everlasting stigma that mental illness is either fake and a person just needs stricter discipline or that the person is just a face paint kit away from being The Joker. Having a mental illness does mean that something is malfunctioning in your mind (or brain) but it doesn’t mean automatically you’re going to become a serial killer, most people suffering from mental illness just want to live life the best they can.
Being Black with mental illness, it is twice as hard to be listened to because there’s the (well-earned) historical distrust in the medical community and the idea that “Black people don’t have mental illness, that’s just White people complaining about how good they have it.” There’s also the idea that church and prayer solves everything, even when it doesn’t. A Black person with mental illness tends to suffer in silence until they pop because the community won’t let them admit there’s a problem because it shows weakness and society at large won’t let them admit there’s a problem because society can’t even see the Black person as a human enough to even consider they may have issues just like everyone else. If it breaks the consistently dehumanizing narrative of “Black people are superhuman in strength, they don’t have time for feelings, just surviving”, it’s usually dismissed. Also there are strong mislabels the Black community has on more eccentric members of the race due to being fairly conservative. If you are Black, there is a much smaller box of existence so to do anything that easily falls outside of that cramp box is considered crazy, which actually can create mental illness in and of itself because of lack of cultural support.
Having a mental illness is not romantic either. It is a constantly pushed myth that to be creative, you have to be crazy and vice versa when the reality is that while there are some similarities, it is definitely different. When you’ve full-blown lost it, you spend all that time going insane, not creating anything. I know that for personal fact when I was too self-destructive to do a single thing, creative or basic sustenance of existence. A good example of how people confuse creativity for mental illness is when people believed Nicki Minaj had Disassociative Identity Disorder because she had an alter ego named Roman. What many missed because they didn’t know the difference is that if it were true, Minaj would not be able to control Roman and when he comes out because DID is when the mind going into fragment of different people all to protect the actual person as a defense mechanism. Minaj would have difficulty remembering things because she wasn’t “home” at the time when Roman was. She wouldn’t be able to bring him up on command because he would be a personality that generally comes out when triggered, which is no fun. To actually live with such a disorder, it would actually get in the way of her career because it would be like two different minds living in the same body. Mental illness does not have an on/off switch that can be flipped for appropriate engagements at will just like you can’t be sick/well whenever you need an excuse to get out of something.
It’s important to know the difference between just being really expressive and actually suffering from a mental illness, just as it is important to debunk the “tortured artist” idea. Not knowing the difference mislabels and misdiagnoses perfectly healthy people and proliferating the “tortured artist” idea keeps people with actual issues away from getting help in fear they’ll lose their creative spark. To do that, there has to be more talks, actually honest talks, about mental illness.
In regards to race, the medical community, both physical and psychological parts, have plenty of catching up to do. Still there is strong prejudice that snakes about in the minds of practitioners, which sorely affects the treatment of their patients because the perspective of illness and treatment is mainly centered on the middle class Whiteness, which puts everyone else in the negative space. For the Black community, it has to learn that we’re as prone to mental illness as any person. It isn’t a “White man disease” nor is it a flight of imagination. It’s not a sign of rejecting Blackness to admit that you have issues. In addition, it important for the Black community to keep in mind that whatever does not fall into Western conservatism is not a mark of insanity. Being eccentric while Black does not mean insanity (nor a rejection of Blackness). There are various expressions of the Black identity, it is not a sign of mental illness to show those various expressions. Race, when discussing mental illness, is not to be ignored but to be included in how to deal with it and combat it.
Living with mental illness is difficult but it can also be difficult for the person who knows a friend or family member with a mental illness. In dealing with someone with a mental illness, the best you can do is listen. Not all mental illnesses are alike and thus need different responses. Same for the people who have them, not everyone wants to be open with what they experience. The best one can do is listen. Simply listen and try to genuinely be there for the person. Try to understand the illness, how it works and, more importantly, how the person is triggered because all the person with the illness needs is to just have someone around to help prevent or minimize their episodes. Basically, just be there for them and keep an open ear.
It is difficult to have mental illness, especially with the stigmas associated with even talking about it. With this series, we will look at mental illness from a personal perspective as well as provide resources to help those who could need it.