If stigma successfully prevents us (people of color) from getting the help we need, unresolved mental health issues can decrease our quality of life, and, in some cases, may even decrease how long we get to live.
For many years, eradicating stigma surrounding mental health in people of color has been a challenge for a variety of reasons. So, to address the problem, Dior Varga, a feminist and mental health activist, recently created a campaign called the “People of Color Mental Illness Photo Project”. It’s a pretty big deal, because one of the best ways to get rid of, or at least mitigate stigma surrounding a specific group of people is to have members of that group share personal stories about how the issue at hand affects them. Doing so can reduce their own isolation, and that of other people dealing with similar issues, because it allows them to see that there are others who relate.
It may be helpful for us to take a step back and define what mental health is, as well as identify the scope of the “access” problem faced by people of color.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease”. The definition is important because it leaves a lot of room for us to think about the issues we need to address. It means that we don’t have to be experiencing some major life crisis in order to reach out and seek help. The WHO mental disorders fact sheet shows us that about 400 million persons are living with depression at any given time, globally. This underscores the fact that depression, the most prevalent of all mental health conditions, is very common.
So, if depression is so common, what do we have to do in order to remove the stigma experienced by people of color seeking mental health care?
I think HOW we think about seeking treatment for mental health is part of the answer. One of the things we have to focus on, if we want to move beyond the stigma, is to realize that seeking help is not a deficit, rather there is strength in accessing support when you finally admit you need it. This makes a big difference. Most of the distressing circumstances in our lives will not go away on their own – we will need to work through them. And having the support of an objective professional to help out through this process can be wonderful.
It’s also helpful not to think of therapy as only being for someone who is depressed or has some major life event they are dealing with.
It can be therapeutic to talk to a therapist and explore your thoughts, situations, and options from varying perspectives – because that is what therapists are trained to do. As therapists, our responsibility is to help you explore the deeper meaning behind your thoughts and, therefore, actions. A lot can be gained by obtaining the perspective of someone who is not emotionally invested in your circumstances. For example, family and friends may lose objectivity because of their history and emotional attachment to you.
As people of color, we may also be dealing with a lot of societal factors that can negatively impact our well-being.
If we think about the toll that urban violence takes on us – where people of color often make up most of the victims; if we think about the issue of immigration – how some of us have family members who are trapped in dangerous living conditions in their country of origin; or if we think about the impact of being a minority in a society – where institutionalized oppressions exist along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and religious expression, among others—we may begin to realize that we are not as emotionally well-balanced as we should be. Unfortunately these experiences are very common for people of color and can take a mental toll.
So, how do we deal with all of these events that impact our emotional well-being?
My answer is: therapy! For some, the decision to see a therapist can be a difficult one, but it can also be very empowering. Because it’s a personal choice, it’s not something you have to share with others if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. The important thing is for you to realize that if you decide to see a therapist, it’s not a life long commitment; you may decide to work with someone for a couple of months or a couple of years. At Talkspace, we encourage our clients to stick with therapy for a minimum of three months, because it provides sufficient time to work through and process many of the challenges you’re facing.
The author, motivational speaker, and talk show host, Iyanla Vanzant said “So many of us invest a fortune making ourselves look good to the world, yet inside we are falling apart. It’s time to invest on the inside”. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement and challenge you to move beyond the stigma; it’s worth more than the cost of living with depression or any other emotional pain you may be experiencing.
If the stigma of working with a therapist is the only thing standing in your way of getting help, then I strongly encourage you to understand the strength that exists in reframing what it means to access help – and make it happen!