Taboo: Mental Health in Women of Color

April 20, 2017 Flora Ekpe-Idang

New Years Day. A day for getting rid of the old such as old habits, bad relationships, weight loss failures, that boring job and instead ringing in the new. As excited as I was about this new year, it was also the day that I learned that an amazing girl I knew in college committed suicide. No, we weren't the closest of friends, but we were colleagues nonetheless. We participated in our school's gospel choir for years as we sang songs of praise, redemption, and perseverance and when I was a resident advisor my senior year she was very close with a number of my residents. Her kindness, generosity, and humility were a few of the many things that made her a memorable person and you couldn't overlook her cute dog video reposts, her passion for writing, or her beautiful photos with friends and family. However, what easily could have been overlooked was the pain she was suffering from and the fact that many of us looking from the outside in had no clue.

Image Credit: Kirsty LAtoya


The pain and hurt of hearing that someone you know could have been going through so much and never knowing about it makes you feel that what could you have done better to prevent the situation from ever happening. Furthermore, she was a young educated God-fearing African-American female that appeared to be so connected to the church. Though I don't know if she ever spoke to her church about her suffering, in the end none of that was enough to keep her here with us.


As I'm sharing this story I want to bring attention to the stigma of mental health issues especially as it relates to women of color. In media representation, there is barely the inclusion, acknowledgment, or mention of mental illness in people of color. However, the show Being Mary Jane poignantly captured Mary Jane's friend Lisa; a successful doctor and a woman of color who was suffering from depression and eventually took her own life. One of the key lines from the show was when Mary Jane was speaking at Lisa's funeral and said: “I used to ask her a thousand times…‘How are you?’… ‘HOW ARE YOU?’ But I don’t know if I actually wanted to hear her truth.”


Click here to watch the chilling clip:


What's so powerful about that statement is at times even myself included we ask our friends, loved ones, or colleagues "How are you?", but are we genuinely interested in knowing how they really are? Also, many of us are familiar with the phrase "fake it until you make it" where you wear a mask of joy and happiness and act as if everything is aright, but we're hiding grief and sorrow. We live in a time where many of us are always on the go and most correspondence happens via text or social media. Taking the time to actually listen to how someone is really doing takes patience, trust, and a strong sense of open-mindedness in which some aren't emotionally ready to give.


What I've learned as I've gotten older is that you have to meet people where they're at. I may want someone who is feeling down to get over it by cracking jokes for them or trying to get them to be very social, but there are times when we just need to take a step back and listen as that person is desperately trying to tell us something that we may be blind to. It may be through words, actions, or it may be through body language. Sometimes when people are going through really rough patches they may not want you to give a response or provide a solution, but instead remain quiet. I'm learning to just be quiet.


The Huffington Post did a great article on four Black female writers who discussed the taboo of mental health in the Black community and its intersection with race. I highly recommend reading their stories when you have a chance. Also, the American Association of Suicidology developed a heart-wrenching campaign titled #ItsMyBusiness that dived into important statistics and myth busters on suicide like suicide being the second leading cause of death for youth aged 15-24.


There are many organizations out there that are providing resources, support, and programs for those suffering with mental illness. I'm still conducting my own research in discovering ways to help bring the conversations more to light and breakdown the stigma of mental health in communities of color. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. This organization is one of many so I do encourage you to look further into each one when seeking to learn more. Regarding mental heath services for youth and young adults, here is a great link to share with others.


Image Credit: National Alliance on Mental Illness


Clearly, I am no expert in this space, but just a person that lost someone to something that could have been prevented had the right support been there. Everyone has their own battles, but the next time that someone asks how are you or you ask them, take time to genuinely learn how they really feel and just provide support. In the words of Being Mary Jane, "Just make sure that you tell everyone that you love that you will love them no matter how ugly their truth'll still love them".