Grin and Bear It No More: We Need More Honest Media Portrayals of Black Mental Health

by Jordan Maney “What you’ve described to me, what I’ve observed from our time together, and what I believe in my professional opinion, i...

by Jordan Maney

“What you’ve described to me, what I’ve observed from our time together, and what I believe in my professional opinion, is that you have PTSD.”

It had taken me two years just to get in that chair. Two years of suicidal ideation, depression, mania, flashbacks, vivid nightmares, unhinged anxiety, and uncontrollable emotions. I should’ve felt relieved but I only sank further into the seat.

In the black community, we don’t acknowledge a lot of things but we definitely don’t speak about sexual abuse and mental illness. They’re social death sentences and I had just received my second one.

“We can treat it with medication, therapy…”

I was still focused on those four letters. It didn’t come to me as a surprise. I had known something was wrong. From the night I locked myself in my dorm room for three days, the night my best friend rushed me to the ER in the middle of a panic attack, to the time I sat upstairs in my parents’ home with a bottle of wine in one hand, and a bottle of Valium in the other, I knew something was off. But the diagnosis made it hurt more—the acknowledgment that I was “crazy.” Mental disorders translate to “something is wrong with you” and people see you as the perpetrator of your own torment.

Suck it up. Deal with it. You’ll get over it. Trouble don’t always last.

But what happens when it seems like it just might?

I had already done my fair share of isolating at that point. I withdrew from activities, from friendships, and sorority activities. I barely attended class because I couldn’t make it down the street without feeling a panic attack explode in my chest. I had morphed into a walking shameful secret and I was going to do what I learned from watching generations before me: pretend that it wasn’t there. I would grin and bear it like I had for the last 11 years. It would magically disappear. Except it didn’t.

Cicely Tyson’s recent portrayal as Annalise Keating’s mother in “How to Get Away With Murder” reminded me a lot of the women that I grew up with. No matter the adornments worn on Sunday, there were burdens and afflictions weighing on them as soon as the benediction was rendered. But despite the pains that deserved their attention, they focused on the tasks at hand, the survival of their families, the support of their churches, the running of their households, the sustainment of their friendships. There was no time to focus on self. My grandmother was born in 1922. Few people remember her for her kindness or affection. She lived a hard life and experienced things no one ever should. I understand what it feels like to sit with that. If poison goes in, poison will come out. She once told my mother, “Back then, we didn’t have a choice. ‘No’ wasn’t a word for us.”

“Help me,” also wasn’t a phrase women of color were allowed or often felt secure enough to speak into existence. Vulnerability at that time could very easily cost us our lives. We didn’t have to say the words to know. We acknowledged insomuch that “this” kind of suffering was just a part of our existence. We carried it like the women before us carried it. But if the prayer was that we one day wouldn’t have to, why do we still now?

It took me two years to finally dispel the shame I had about needing help. I kept telling myself that I could fix it on my own, that it would eventually fade away. Those years I can’t get back. I wanted everyone to believe the lie I was telling myself that everything was all right when it clearly wasn’t. I struggled longer than I had to because by refusing to acknowledge my pain, I delayed my healing.

Watching Trai Byers’ masterful performance of someone diagnosed with bipolar disorders on the hit TV show Empire every Wednesday night, I know I don’t need to be silent about my own experiences. His scenes in the past few episodes were dangerously close to what I had lived: the suicidal ideation, the euphoria of mania, the depression that follows, the untethered emotions, the raging thoughts; and the feeling that to suffer alone and pretend to be fine is better than to speak up and possibly lose everything—those were all things I suffered through. I can’t thank him, David Rambo, and Anthony Hemingway for bringing reality and humanity to mental health issues seldom explored through the perspective of African-Americans on television before.

As Iyanla would say, I did my work, both in and out of the therapist’s office. I laid the foundation for boundaries, anxiety management, established support, and worked through the many layers of pain that come with surviving sexual abuse. It’s something I realize I will live with my entire life, but that doesn’t mean it runs my life. I realized the generational cycles of abuse, mental illness, and destructive patterns I saw growing up in the church and as a military kid didn’t have to be repeated.

Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers didn’t feel they had a choice, so they created sacred spaces for black women to just be. But we do have a choice, due in large part to their prayers and sacrifices. It’s time to truly have an honest look at how we treat those suffering from mental illnesses. Most importantly, it’s time to heal.

Jordan Maney was born an Army brat and raised in Texas. She is an advocate for mental health awareness, healthy relationships, and personal development.

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