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Stop Calling Mental Illnesses ‘White People Diseases’

Stop Calling Mental Illnesses 'White People Diseases'


Stop Calling Mental Illnesses ‘White People Diseases’

We need seminars on mental illness to inform the population, and include it in the curriculum, so we’re compassionate citizens to each other.

Stop Calling Mental Illnesses 'White People Diseases'We’re facing hyperinflation, atrocious governance, human rights violations, unemployment rate as high as a slay queen’s stilettos, crippling poverty and a pandemic. How can people not be depressed? At this point we need a necromancer to reanimate our will to live.

First, I’ll discuss black communities’ problematic attitudes towards mental illness, like calling it a demon to be prayed away; then provide historical racial context because insinuating that blacks are inherently ignorant about mental health, is short-sighted and problematic (in this section, white people, take notes).

Black communities’ view of mental illness is:

1. You are a mad person with violent tendencies, talks to themselves, has a learning/speaking disability; or

2. You are fine. No in between.

Black boomers and generation X are brutal when you confide your mental health. Your parents will mock you like, “nangu uZoleka Depression Mazibuko.” Then snidely remark, “you look depressed today.” Thanks, mama, it’s the depression. Mental illness is attached to ridicule, shame and demonization. Or as we black people have all probably heard, it’s only for white people.

Statistics say the weather forecast is scattered with showers of ignorance. Blacks are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health problems than other races. Black children below 13 are twice as likely to commit suicide than white peers. Black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teens. It’s so bad we sprinkle a “haha lol” at the end of depression jokes so no one calls the suicide hotline on us.

African parents think hitting and yelling solves every problem then when we’re depressed, we’re labelled dramatic. My friend begged to see a psychiatrist but her mother said she’s exaggerating, then wondered why she attempted suicide. Traditional African parenting blind to children’s emotions directly contributes to mental illness, then black parents gaslight us.

Sometimes they give well-intentioned remarks like my uncle who said I must “stop being sad and just be happier”. Wow, malume, what an excellent idea, how did I not think of that? Thank you, I’m cured! Depression isn’t sadness, it’s a clinical condition. He said I shouldn’t be depressed because I’m a talented straight A student with an affluent family. The black community thinks me excelling means I have nothing to be depressed about. It’s like saying because you have a good life, your cancer isn’t real.

Firstly, I have chronic pain which impairs my life’s quality. Secondly, sometimes mental illnesses are genetic. Bipolar disorder makes me so depressed for about a week every few weeks then happy and excitable for absolutely no reason; because my chemicals are a child pressing random buttons in my head. If only my problems were as small as my bum.

But what do black adults say? I’m a dramatic attention-seeker. Shout out to my aunt who said my bipolar disorder and depression are in my head; no hey, Siphiwe, it’s in my suitcase at the back of my wardrobe. “But you don’t look depressed” oops, I forgot my dark cloud and Depression Merchandise at home.

When I told a friend about the bipolar disorder, she said my psychiatrist is being dramatic, like “bipolar” is a word reserved for worst case scenarios. Why do we treat mental illness as a dirty word? Fearing acknowledging someone actually has a mental illness because that’s “too far a stretch”? We’d rather dismiss and invalidate people instead of being open-minded and compassionate.

Black communities tend to view mental illness as showing weakness. For example, the Ndebele phrase “indoda kayikhali/a man doesn’t cry.” Okay, so do men sweat through their eyes? Last time I checked, they have tear ducts. Men can express violent emotions like rage, but can’t be depressed, feel scared, express any non-aggressive emotions because that’s weakness. This breeds emotionally constipated people who become emotionally unavailable partners and parents, have anger issues, undiagnosed mental illness whose symptoms are expressed in hurtful ways, or just commit suicide, because they’d rather die than show weakness.

Maybe that person who’s the human equivalent of load shedding, is mentally ill but repressed.

Black Christian communities calls mental illnesses demons and respond with, “you must just pray”. My mom attended a church which made her discard her antidepressants and mood stabilizers because she was now “healed in Christ”. God must’ve made made humans develop psychiatric knowledge and discover herbs for pharmaceuticals but not use them because he loves wasting his time. He created plants and animals for us to eat but we won’t eat them because we have faith he will rain manna from heaven. I have a bomber jacket but I won’t wear it on this snowy day because God will keep me warm.

No, seriously, that’s how you sound.

Because God doesn’t tolerate stupidity, the Nigerian pastor who said he’d go to China to kill coronavirus, caught it and went to the ICU. And because life isn’t a Nigerian movie, mama had a breakdown which hospitalized her despite her prayers and church attendance. Prayer and medical treatment aren’t actually exclusive. You can be a prayer warrior, fast, read the whole Bible and go to church but still have a mental illness. This oversimplification of religion and mental illness makes mentally ill worshippers feel like failures in God’s eyes.

Many Christians call mental illness a demon. Problem is we call everything we don’t understand, demonic. My aunt with epilepsy was whipped till her back was raw to remove the “demon” in her. When bank cards came, there were conspiracy theories in black communities that they’re demonic. Now the coronavirus vaccine is demonic (okay but white Karen’s too) because “my faith is not in sanitizer, it’s in masks”.

During colonialism, Africans were indoctrinated into Christianity. People had the Bible in their heads without fully understanding the Word. Now we claim mental illness is demonic because our understanding of God is filtered through the lens of regurgitated church lessons which sometimes have no Biblical foundation because the pastor is always right. Now because Pastor claims depression is a demon, the congregation agrees as though he is deputy God, then they demonize mental illness patients.

But blacks’ dismissal of mental illness didn’t grow in a vacuum. We internalized the racist view that we’re resilient beasts biologically equipped to handle hardship and stress. During colonialism and apartheid, black employees earned less than white employees; the justification was black people are naturally able to endure harsh conditions and survive with little whereas white people “aren’t made that way”. Dehumanizing living and working conditions naturally affects one’s mental health but this was dismissed because blacks are too resilient to be depressed.

Even when we seek professional help, blacks either face dismissive appointments where we’re gaslighted or we face racial misdiagnosis e.g black men have been misdiagnosed and over diagnosed with schizophrenia because their emotions are deemed psychotic.

This fuels the distrust Africans have in mental health systems. Our emotions aren’t acknowledged unless that emotion is aggression because violence is stereotypical of blackness, so any other emotion is invalidated. Where white people can avoid harsh sentences by pleading insanity and requesting a psych evaluation, black people rarely can because we’re violent animals undeserving of having our mental health evaluated.

Black parents, grandparents had to put up with systemic racism, crippling economic and social inequality, which damaged their mental health. Blacks watch their families and neighbors shot down and we must accept it as part of life. Zimbabweans are arrested, shot and tortured for peacefully demanding better living and working conditions, repressed for expressing our emotions. Slavery, colonialism and repressive post-colonial governments created an environment where expressing our emotions is unsafe, thus, we normalized downplaying our mental health, dismissing our trauma, emotions and being strong in distressful situations.

Our grand/parents call it demons because they had inferior education to their white counterparts, no education at all or access to information about mental health. Then they governed with the mentality they were socialized into and continued perpetuating the disregard for mental health by excluding it in the policy agenda. In turn, the general population has little mental health knowledge and the stigma lives on.

But we must break this cycle. Stop seeing discussing mental illness as weakness. If you have consistent back pain, you go see a doctor; let’s do the same for mental illness. Normalize seeing a counsellor or psychologist, normalize seeing a psychiatrist and inquiring on medication. Listen to people confiding their mental illness, empathize with them, be compassionate not reactive, and do research if you don’t understand. We need seminars on mental illness to inform the population, and include it in the curriculum, so we’re compassionate citizens to each other.

Anyway, I’m off to doing my favorite sport: running away from my emotions!

When I'm not smashing the patriarchy, I debate, paint, and work on my YA African feminist fantasy novel on Wattpad--which I guess is also smashing the patriarchy. Currently stu(dying) BA Law at University of Pretoria. I may or may not be a mermaid masquerading as a human. Pro-LGBTQ+. I'm just out here not hearing problematic people over the volume of my Afro.

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