The sound of silence
The Black community has survived years of slavery, trauma and struggle. These feats take immense courage and require a degree of perseverance that would be impossible without sacrifice. Unfortunately, this sacrifice has caused a culture of shame around personal struggles and has allowed for the proliferation of untreated mental health issues among the Black community.
Having to fight for the most basic of human rights and campaign for equal treatment with their White counterparts meant that there was no room to allow for vulnerability. Any sign of struggle was a sign of weakness and the community were fighting hard to prove that they deserved to be treated as respectable humans.
We still have members in our community who were alive during the 1959 Theatre Boycott and lived through these segregated times in Bermudian history. Although we have come a long way from that era, the African diaspora across the globe continues to fight for equality. While the silence of suffering has brought Blacks thus far, in order to progress farther, the community need to deconstruct the cultural stigma surrounding mental health.
The normalisation of secrecy among the Black community comes not only at a cost of mental health issues but at the expense of abuse, molestation and other issues deemed as “shameful”. Common phrases such as “don’t air your dirty laundry” mean that Black youth are less likely to reach out for help in times of trouble and are being taught dysfunctional coping mechanisms to grapple with their problems.
Among Black youth, medication is widely seen as the enemy, while cannabis and other substances are viewed as normal. Among the older generations, it is generally believed that prayer is the antidote for all problems. While we respect the role of religious practices in people’s lives, this should be seen as a supplement, rather than a replacement for other treatment options.
Many Black people also see therapy as a “waste of money” but this stems from a misunderstanding around what the process truly involves and a culture of shame around talking about personal issues and trauma. In order to start combating this issue, it is crucial that proper education and awareness be made available to the Black community around mental health issues. This involves understanding the symptoms and types of mental disorders, destigmatising treatment options for them and integrating mental wellness into the homes of Black Bermudians. The second problem is with issues of accessibility, which calls for reform in making therapy affordable for those who cannot afford it.
The reality is that mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of and should be viewed similarly to physical ailments. While causes of mental disorders are unique to each illness, it can be broadly defined that most times it is a culmination of factors such as genetics and trauma that can cause the development of these problems.
Understanding the science behind these illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, which is widely believed to be the result of chemical imbalances, helps to appreciate the role of medication in managing those imbalances. Furthermore, receiving professional help to deal with traumatic life events does not mean that you are inadequate as a person and should not be viewed as a personal shortcoming. It simply means that you are consulting an expert in their field to receive the best possible care, similar to breaking your leg and going to the hospital. Of course, you could try to make a cast at home, but you have the best chance of healing your leg if you go to a doctor.
The same principle applies to mental health issues — there is no shame in reaching out for help. Black people have had to be strong for so long that we’ve forgotten the importance of remaining soft. To ensure the wellbeing of future Black generations, it is time that we start cultivating a culture of acceptance, compassion and open-mindedness around mental health issues.