I am a college graduate from the illustrious Florida A & M University. I am currently a graduate student at Seton Hall pursuing my Master’s in Counseling. I am a model. I am a mental health nurse, and advocate. I am a survivor. I am a mental health advocate. I am also a Black woman with a mental health disorder known as Bipolar I Disorder. I’ve been on three different medications; sometimes having to take four pills in one day. At one point I wanted to commit suicide. I've spent countless days in therapy. And so what? I am no different from anyone else. Yet why does the Black community continue to dismiss those with more severe forms of mental illnesses? Not to say depression and anxiety aren’t because we have seen also result in tragedy. However, why aren’t we discussing Cousin Monica’s over the top, high energy behavior one day then her hopeless, sad energy the next? Or maybe we’re paying no mind to Crazy Joe from around the way that is still hearing things and talking to himself about a bunch of things that don’t make sense. Why is it when we do acknowledge these people it’s to talk about them and not to find ways to help them? In our community we label these behaviors or people as “crazy.” These behaviors may seem bizarre, but the person themselves is likely just misunderstood and not crazy.
We as a community aren’t taking the time to understand these complex mental illnesses, yet I'm sure a lot of us have been exposed to them and didn’t even know! I’ m not saying go be Batman and save these people, or even read up on every mental illness known to man. That’s impossible. What I am saying is, take the time and do your - dare I say it – homework to understand these people’s behaviors a bit more especially if it’s a loved one or a friend. We need to begin to broaden our knowledge on these lesser known disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Psychosis, PTSD, and start to normalize these mental illnesses. They are just as common as depression, just as prevalent, and just as important. Most importantly, we need to understand that black people with these mental illnesses or any mental illnesses are just that – a PERSON. Treat them as such. Love them as such and most importantly understand them as such.
I remember the day like it was yesterday when I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. In that split moment those words left my therapist lips, I already knew what it was. I spent days going over my symptoms on Wed MD hoping to get diagnosed from Google so I could figure myself out rather than relying on a real professional. I’d typed in my symptoms: racing thoughts, impulse, irritable, depression, hopelessness. Enter. Impulsive Control Disorder. No, that didn’t sound right. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. No, that didn’t sound right either. There was something to how snug the shoe fit when I looked up Bipolar Disorder. “Couldn’t be,” I told myself. Soon enough after feeling like I had mentally threw up all the hidden skeletons and demons in my closet to my therapist, she said what I knew all along; that I have Bipolar Disorder.
I always felt I was a walking contradiction. I was President of a well-known Mental Health Club in college. I’ve written for Mental Health Blogs. I advocated for mental health. I felt like the therapist out of my friend group. I was always helping everyone feel better. I even got a job as a Mental Health Nurse at a Behavioral Hospital. Yet sometimes it felt like nothing mentally separated me from the patients. Sometimes I felt like I was just like them; wrestling with the reality of this diagnosis, being mad at the world for this problem I felt I shouldn't be going through, refusing medication and in and out of therapy. Honestly, I felt that all the hurtful things those people would say about me were true. That I was crazy, that there was something wrong with me and that I should just go check into a crazy house. But I had to remind myself those things do not define me and are not me. I am a human being with feelings too, and a brain that is just a little sicker than normal. We must not forget the brain is an organ. Just like our liver, kidneys, heart it gets sick too causing these mental illnesses we see today. So shouldn’t we treat it like cancer? Shouldn’t we normalize being comfortable with saying “I have Bipolar Disorder” just as someone would say “I have cancer.”? Shouldn’t we as a people go to therapy when our brain is sick the same way we would go to the doctor for chemotherapy? The sad part is our community rarely knows the signs of someone who is mentally ill. Often, they are just laughed at, called crazy or worse simply ignored.
Bipolar disorder can manifest itself in two types – type I and type II.
Bipolar I Disorder–which I have — deals with manic (highs) episode lasting several days or maniac symptoms severe enough for hospitalization. Maniac behaviors are described as racing thoughts, exaggerated sense of self – confidence (euphoria), irritation, increased activity, poor decision – making, increased sexual risks, excessive drinking in some cases. You can also experience depressive (lows) episodes that last for 2 weeks. I am sure we all know what depression looks like, but a few symptoms include hopelessness, loss of interest, insomnia or sleeping too much, fatigue, suicidal thoughts. It is possible to experience an episode of depression and mania (depression with mixed features) at the same time.
Bipolar II Disorder is a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. Hypomania are manic episodes that only last a few days whereas mania in bipolar I disorder are more severe episodes that last for a week or more.
There is also a third type of bipolar disorder that is less common called Cyclothymia. Cyclothymia are periods of hypomanic symptoms with periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least 2 years.
Let me ask you this: how many therapy or counseling centers do we see in our black communities? I’ll wait. Very little to none. We unfortunately as compared to our white counterparts don’t have as much access to therapy, proper insurance, or even know how or what or when. I get it, we cannot control these issues. Sometimes we do want help but can’t because of the lack thereof! Just like access to supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables, necessities like counseling are usually in the next town over miles away. But you know what we can control? How educated we are of mental illnesses and understanding its importance. It can start at home. The library. Your friend’s house. Church. Even at the bus stop. Educate your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunt, uncle. Know the signs and symptoms. Dismantle these old – age myths a lot of parents and grandparents still believe. We have all heard these myths before. Black folk don’t need therapy. Black boys don’t cry. Mental illness is a white man’s disease. Therapy is for the weak.
We’ve been telling ourselves and our children these lies for years just to go on to deal with our own psychological pain and demons with excessive eating, drinking, drugs, and excessive violence. We would rather self-destruct than be strong enough to say “I need mental help.” No more. We cannot continue to move like this as a people. The excuses stop today.
Our melanin does not shield us from mental illness. And it’s definitely not just depression and anxiety that run deep in our community. 7 million of our people right now are suffering and that’s not even counting those that haven’t gained the courage to speak but it’s okay. Baby steps. If you are a part of that percentage that hasn’t found their voice to speak up, take it from me, it will take time. It took me almost 5 years and 4 different therapists to get this mental illness thing right. It is not an overnight journey. You will relapse but you will get back up and try again. You will feel stagnant and like nothing is helping, keep going until you find what suits you because it is out there. You will feel angry, confused and like you want to give up but don’t. Our community needs your voice, your help, your story and most importantly you. If no one told you you are important, you are. With or without a mental illness we are all important and play a role to prepare the next generation for this battle called life.
I am a mental health advocate. I am a college graduate from the illustrious Florida A & M University. I am currently a graduate student at Seton Hall. I am a model. I am a mental health nurse. I am a survivor. I am also a Black woman who HAS a mental health disorder known as bipolar I disorder that does not define who I am. I am not crazy. I am not my mental illness; I just have one. I am growing. I am learning new things about myself. I am still making mistakes. But overall, I stand proud in my past, present, weakness, strengths but mostly importantly I am proud of who I am.
My advice to those in the black community struggling with mental illness or just struggling in general: let's be more gentle to each other. Mental illness is not funny or something to throw in someone’s face. This world needs a little bit more gentle love instead of harsh hatred or judgement. None of us are in a position to judge anyone. Next time we see something we don’t understand, it is not a time to judge but a time to keep negative comments to ourselves and begin to educate ourselves on the things we do not know. For those with mental illness, be more gentle with yourself. You are trying. It is not your fault that this is happening. Start rewarding yourself for what you have done even if it’s just getting out of bed before 1pm or simply just showering. Simple but it’s something worth celebrating over. Remember what I said earlier, baby steps. Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. Now let’s go. Let’s keep taking baby steps until they turn into bigger steps and bigger steps and bigger steps. You will fall but you will get up and keep trying. We are all trying. We are fighting battles unseen. But we will all win.
About the Author:
Kion Glover is from New Jersey and currently pursuing her Master’s in Counseling.