WFDD's Radio 101 has chosen to use initials in the following story due to the sensitive subject matter and to protect the students' privacy.
A few years ago, T found herself struggling with thoughts of self-harm. She was being bullied by a group of girls at school and she wasn't feeling like there were that many people rooting for her.
“I just wanted to, like, just die,” said T. “So I started writing notes to myself saying that I should kill myself to try to hype me up to do it. And one of my friends gave it [the notes] to the teacher and she gave it to the guidance counselor. The guidance counselor told my mother, and my mother said that I was just looking for attention.”
At the time, the guidance counselor gave T a notebook where she could write about her feelings as a way to process them. But T's mom wasn't convinced there was actually a problem. She took the notebook away and told T that she could use it only during school hours.
“Like I literally felt like my mother did not care,” said T. “She was like, ‘Why are talking about killing yourself? You should be happy you had both parents' and stuff like that.' And I was like ‘O.K.' and I told her that I was sorry and then like pretty much she did not help me feel better. She pretty much made me feel worse about wanting to kill myself, which made me want to like do it more because I was like bro I'm making my mother suffer.”
Talking about mental health is tough. Talking about mental health when you're not sure if the person you're talking to is going to be receptive, is even tougher. This is particularly true for Black people. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a history of prejudice and discrimination in the healthcare system, plus provider bias, and a lack of cultural competency can result in misdiagnosis or inadequate treatment. For example, NAMI reports that Black people tend to describe bodily aches and physical pain when talking about depression. A physician might not see these as symptoms of a mental health issue. Moreover, the stigma around mental health in the Black community is pervasive. One study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that over 60 percent of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness.
“That's not something new — that for some reason our ancestors believed it was a sign of weakness to admit that you were not O.K. And that has continued. So therefore what goes on in my house stays in my house, right?” said Keisha Horton, Licenced Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist. “That was a very common belief and still is in some homes. That you don't talk about your stuff. You just deal with it. Or you take it to God.”
And according to Horton, it is this failure to acknowledge that there is a problem that is at the root of a lot of what we're seeing nowadays. “Hurt people, hurting people, and they're not dealing with their stuff because they've been told it is a sign of weakness,” said Horton. “To deal with this stuff, parents have to be more conscious and more aware that if your child does not talk about their things, whether it's with a therapist or with them, you know, talk to your children, then eventually that stuff is going to come out.”
So, on the one hand, we have teens (and grown-ups) that, for cultural reasons, are not given the space to talk about their mental health. And on the other hand, these same teens are constantly bombarded with traumatic events that could have a big impact in determining how that child is going to grow up. In 1996 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned a study that looked into how specific childhood events could have an impact on the development of a person. Racism made it onto the list.
“Our childhood experiences really impact who we become more than people like to admit, and so there are some experiences that happen in certain cultures more than others,” said Horton. “There are certain cultures, you know as we're speaking about African American culture, that deal with more certain things than others. So sometimes we have a lot more racial trauma.”
A study from Rutgers University found that Black teens average over five racial discriminations per day. Other studies have found that around 90 percent of Black teens have self-reported perceived discrimination and racism.
“[With] what has transpired over the last year with George Floyd and all the things that that brought up for us, I do believe there was a space in there where you did need someone that could relate to what you were feeling due to the color of your skin,” said Horton. “You may have a better result with someone who is of the skin color because your trauma or your symptoms are related to the color of your skin and having a white therapist may trigger what you're feeling because a part of your problem is that you feel hurt by them or you feel violated in some way due to their race.”
And that might be hard to find. According to the American Psychological Association, only 4 percent of the psychology workforce is Black. But that number almost triples when looking at early career psychologists, so in time, it might be easier for Black teens like T to get the help they desperately seek.