It's Time We Start Treating Mental Illness as Chronic Illness

by Anna Gibson

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness it's estimated that 1 in 4 people in the United States struggle with mental illness. The "trifecta" of severe mental illnesses—bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression—are estimated to affect 13.6 million Americans.

In spite of this this, mental illness is considered something that black women feel we don't have to deal with. However, this couldn't be any further from the truth.

I've had the opportunity to sit down and speak to one Valencia "Numi" Vanner. Vanner is a poet in the metro Detroit area and a youth specialist advisor who works directly with youth in juvenile detention. Vanner is also no stranger to mental illness. She has dealt with both depression and anxiety since she was 13 years old. Her story is truly an inspiration.

She’s now 34, but she was only diagnosed with clinical depression at the age 29. She spoke to me about how she experiences her illness and how it affects her day-to-day life: "My baseline is depression. On my best days I'm a ‘C,’ I can fake a ‘B’… Every 4 years beginning at the age of 14 I couldn't function. I couldn't get enough sleep and didn't have any motivation to go to school. I had no energy. Sometimes I would go to sleep and sleep so long I would wake up didn’t know if it was day or night. No one knew what was wrong with me.”

The ignorance of the people around her reflects both the stigma and lack of understanding about what mental illness looks like in women of color. Black people, especially black women are more prone to “sucking it up” and being “strong” in the face of severe mental illness rather than be honest about the pain they’re going through.

Vanner speaks about this, saying, "Depression isn't killing us. Bipolar disorder isn't killing us. Apathy is killing us. Ignorance is killing us."

So where do we start? In order to get a firm grasp on your illness you must first do the research and develop a concrete understanding of what your illness does to you.

Vanner states, "Mental illness is with you at all times. It's a disease that progresses with age. It knows that some things that I overcame won't effect me anymore, so it comes up with new ways to strike. Some days it’s like a chess game and all you can do is hold it off. If I'm talking to another person with mental illness, my illness hears it and resents me for speaking out, and their illness resents them for speaking out."

For most, the first step in finding healing is by going to a psychiatrist. This is an activity that black people have traditionally distrusted and shunned. However Vanner expounds on the necessity of personal autonomy and the need to determine whether or not your therapist is “culturally competent.”

She says, "The templates they [psychiatrists] use to diagnose us aren't culturally relevant to [black women]. For instance, black women tend to present better than we actually are. When we go to a therapists office, you may look good, you may bathe… The therapists wouldn't know just how ill you are."

For some, looking more deeply at the nature of your illness is considered a big jump. With the prevalence of black men and women being diagnosed twice as much as their white counterparts, research pays off quite drastically.

She says, "You have to tell the doctor you're with, ‘I don't think you're culturally competent.’ You have to do the research and become an expert on your illness.”

If we aren't keen on the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, we may try to find other ways to get the support we need. Social media is a great medium for that. Whether you try to find a closed or 'secret' group in Facebook, or post under an alias on a discussion board to websites like The Icarus Project, you need to find some form of support to carry you through. "A lot of the time, we're worried about people hurting us. Depression can cloud your judgment and make you paranoid. Because of this I'm a big fan of online support groups. Take a chance and reach out to a stranger. If you feel that someone could help you, they probably can," Vanner offered.

All in all, Vanner has come a long way, and she ultimately desires to help the women who come after her. "I grieve a lot for all I lost as I struggled with this illness. I think of all the songs I could have wrote, all the poems that were unwritten, and all the time wasted. This makes me angry sometimes. However, I think my biggest triumph is helping the people ahead of me, young women like you and anyone else struggling with this. It's like my mental illness is running behind me, and I'm shouting ahead to you guys with information on how to combat it. That’s my greatest triumph."

We can only hope that Vanner and people like her continue to help combat the mental health issues black women face every day. In this manner, perhaps we can discard the stigma and be real about what we have to endure. We can create communities designed to help each other to thrive and become successful, and we will no longer suffer in isolation.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University, a Buddhist, and advocate for the marginalized. You can find her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where she’s hiding under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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