From Causality to Cure: Why the Conversation around Black Mental Health & Wellness Often Falls Short

The theme for Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness which feels sadly ironic given the fact that the month set aside to focus on this is also the shortest month of the year. Granted, this was not the intent of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), who, in 1926, established Negro History Week during the 2nd week of February that commemorates both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. Sixty years later, the shortest month of the year became National Black History Month. Just as American history is studied and celebrated beyond the singular holiday of July 4th, the same must hold true for Black history.

So, during this month and beyond, how will we choose to honor and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the fields of health and wellness? How will we address the fact that American healthcare has ignored or sidelined the needs of African Americans? How do we rectify the fact that many Blacks distrust the medical establishment because of its persistent history of brutality and betrayal?

Particularly poignant is the issue of mental health which has been something of a cause celebre recently with companies and the media alike highlighting the need for less stigma and more awareness. This is clearly a move in the right direction but, when addressing African American communities, attention must be paid, and care must be taken to acknowledge the historical significance of slavery and the realities and roles of persistent and systemic racism in order to fully address the issue.

“Take a mental health day.”

Against the backdrop of the blistering boil that burst in the form of 2020, leading to a racial reckoning (of sorts) marked by (at best) greater activism, awareness, and learning by non-people of color and (at worst) more money for advertising and marketers, telling a person of color to take a mental health day, in and of itself, is just more of the same. Without an understanding of the historical and systemic context in which we live, it’s death by a thousand cuts — a term used to describe an ancient form of Chinese torture reserved for those accused of the highest crimes — which, metaphorically, in America, would be being Black.

The perpetration of slavery with its enduring expressions of oppression (police brutality) and marginalization (ongoing voter suppression) sought, and seeks, to destroy a people. The very act of survival bears the hard-won gift of pride and self-respect. Pride and self-respect fuels resilience and strength which further ensures survival. Our ancestors knew this, and we know this. Especially when our children look to us for guidance.

“But things have changed.”

When my high-school-age daughter goes into a clothing store and is followed around by salespeople who don’t do the same to other (read: white) customers, that’s not “change.” When the mantra “but we don’t see color” is the knee-jerk reaction to a Black person’s experience, or the passionate plea by “well-meaning folks” to stop the talk about racial discrimination because “it’s not like that anymore,” that’s not change either. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

Given this, along with other forms of racially infused trauma that feed our daily news cycle and social media feeds, how does a community that survived by sheer force of will embrace the vulnerability that mental health professionals and HR departments are encouraging? When people of color are not represented in corporate America or bodies of government and justice, when their schools and communities are underfunded and overpoliced, and when they are statistically more likely to be killed by those police than their white counterparts, a focus on mental health without focusing on the above causation is missing the mark — by a long shot. Particularly when corporate, community or private mental health offerings mirror the precise inequalities that fuel the dis-ease. You can’t address mental health unless you address the disease behind the dis-ease of people of color which puts the onus back on the systems, organizations, and laws that profit and promote inequality, oppression, and other forms of violence.

“In high school, I learned chemistry, biology

But not how to cope with anxiety

Or how I could feel like I’m by myself on an island

With depression on all sides of me”

- “Deep Reverence” by Rapper Big Sean with the late Nipsey Hussle[1]

“A couple years ago I was having some suicidal thoughts and depression, so I checked myself into a psych unit. When I got out, a friend of mine was like, “Are you ok, man?” But I had so many cool words available to me, I was like, “Yeah, I was just trippin’.” But I wasn’t just trippin’, I had a severe mental health breakdown. If anything, I might have been buggin’ but I wasn’t trippin’.”

- Comedian Jordan Temple

It used to be that you’d never hear seniors in the black community talk about mental health. “You’re just being dramatic,” “You just need to sit down,” or “Everybody has it.” From a lineage of survivors came a lineage of survivors. From Black churches to community organizations to rappers, hip hop artists, and comedians, these are and have been our lifelines. The revolution may not be televised but the elevation of mental health from stigma to rap stylin’ is revolutionary, in and of itself, and is moving the dial within the community and outside of it. So much so that global companies have increased Black therapists within their Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) which, in turn, supports the industry and demand for Black mental health professionals.

Despite the constant barrage of misinformation and hysteria around the tools to address racism (i.e., Critical Race Theory) which are, repeatedly, also the tools to support mental health in a causal way, navigating the landscape of mental health within the black community has been made easier by the ones that went before. From Black Women’s Mental Wellness Communities to Therapy for Black Men, to Queer and Trans networks of support, to surf therapy with Black Girls Surf, the offerings by and for the community are growing and will be available long after the daily news cycle, long after the next election, and long after the 28 days of the shortest month of the year are over.

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Wema Hoover

Wema Hoover is an executive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practitioner. She has over 15 years of experience leading global DEI teams across Fortune 500 Company.