According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people will struggle with a mental illness at some point during their lives. That time for me came at sixteen when I was away from home for the first time, confronting distressing feelings about my identity and faith a million miles from the people I loved.
Being so young back then, and struggling to come to terms with the changes inside my head, I shared my anxiety and fears with my parents, both of whom, at the time, were my emotional crutch against the dangers of the world. But rather than console me and honour my feelings, my concerns were met with hostility, and distance. Their reaction typified the general attitudes towards mental health in black African homes, where admitting you were depressed was frowned upon. It meant affirming God had failed and as my parents constantly reinforced, He never failed. Every panic or anxiety attack was quickly followed by ‘Pray to God, all will be answered’ and I would spend the better part of my teenage years, trying and failing to pray the negative thoughts away.
The more I tried to connect with God during my depressive episodes, the more I resented him for not answering my prayers and getting me through the rough moments from my teenage years well into my adulthood. This is the reality for many young people in the Black African community where there is a serious stigma surrounding mental health, with expectations placed on young adults to surrender all their problems to prayer.
At the time, I believed my parents, and I did as I was told because that is all I ever knew. Being in my twenties now, I know that prayer is not the only answer to mental health issues. However, many young people within the religious community still do not know this or have the luxury of seeking out healthier options for fear of judgment by their loved ones. Armed with the knowledge that black people are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than other races, there is an urgent need to normalise talking about mental health options in black African homes without only resorting to prayer. We don’t need to act like prayer always absolves all issues, because it does not (with no disrespect to any religion).
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But what does normalising mental health concerns look like in practice for us? While not everyone will need mental health treatments, having open conversations about the nuances of mental well-being is critical to any change. They say admitting something is the first step to recovery, and the black community can really work on being more emphatic to the struggles of others - from making a safe non-jugmental space to discuss these issues with parents or mentors, to allowing young adults openly have their questions and worries answered.
It could also mean seeing healthier representation of mental health in popular culture. As a black African, I can tell you that popular culture portrays those struggling with mental health as on the verge of psychological doom. We need to avoid using words like crazy or insane to describe these behaviours and replace these depictions with more healthy representations that show black people seeking help and appropriatey receiving it without the need for name-calling or shame.
In a year marked with so much pain, death and violence, physical and mental wellbeing matters more than anything. We’re constantly awashed with bad news everyday and the last thing anyone needs is to have their pain and feelings diminished because their parents profusely adulate prayer and piousness over wellness. The world is changing, and our reactions to people struggling with mental health needs to acclimatize as well. It’s time we all speak irreverently loud about our struggles, no matter your background.
Written by Tami Makinde