The Mental Health Taboo in the Black Community Is Finally Lifting

The Mental Health Taboo in the Black Community Is Finally Lifting

In response to an incredibly difficult year, safe spaces and support networks are becoming even more important

Between combating police brutality and Covid-19, Black people are struggling. Some of us are tired physically from protesting and going to work. Others are tired emotionally from grieving the lives that were lost to police brutality and the coronavirus. Many of us are tired mentally from continuing to take care of ourselves and our families amid what feels like two pandemics. And many of us are dealing with all of that simultaneously.
While the battles of racism and health disparities aren’t new to Black people, together they’re taking a tremendous toll on our mental health at the moment. Studies show that, due to oppression and bias, Black people experience post-traumatic stress disorder and stress at higher rates as well as discrimination in health care settings, stifled access to medical care and healthy food, unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration, and exposure to pollution and noise. Couple these realities with the fact that 1) mental health is a historically taboo topic in the Black community and 2) anxiety and depression are stigmatized as signs of weakness, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of silent suffering.
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That’s why safe spaces for mental health support have become increasingly necessary for Black people, a place where we feel comfortable being vulnerable and feel heard. Mental health experts throughout the country are tackling this conversation, and the Bay Area is leading the way to destigmatize mental health support, including providing access to digital experiences available during the pandemic.
“Mental health is finally getting the attention it needs in the Black community,” says San Jose-based clinical therapist Nia Ridgle, “but … it took murder, trauma, a pandemic, and the exposure of a historically toxic system to experience.”
Ridgle runs a consulting firm that offers group therapy, mindfulness workshops, individual coaching, and more. Before starting this path, she struggled with depression herself, feeling guilty and shameful as the result of a mentally abusive relationship. She was able to feel better and discover more self-love through the help of a professional, and now she is sharing her expertise to help others.
We live in a climate where, as a Black man, it’s hard to let your guard down, but true healing and the successful restructuring of systems require it—from all of us.
“I remember as a little girl — growing up in a high-crime, high-poverty neighborhood — I dreamed about my success,” she said. “It was the only thing that kept me motivated. Now, on most days, I am happy. Many days, I am confused. Other days, I am indifferent. The only thing that helps me to stay positive is the fact that I am healthy enough to make an impact. Providing adequate services for my clients who are at risk mentally as a result of trauma is my gift to my community.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Ridgle’s consulting firm has experienced higher demand for the mental health services that she provides. She recognizes the magnitude of responsibility to support Black people in their healing and that this opportunity comes at a cost. As a Black clinician, “holding space for Black people to become more conscious of their subconscious programming and toleration of trauma” is how Ridgle plans to continue showing up for Black people’s mental health needs.
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Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ridgle has been hosting a monthly motivational event called Restoring the King, an online mental wellness group for Black and Brown men. She works with guest facilitators to challenge attendees in achieving greater strength, self-respect, and assertiveness. “Simply put, I believe in Black and Brown men,” she said. “I believe in family. I believe in healing spaces, but most importantly, I believe in restoration.”
We live in a climate where, as a Black man, it’s hard to let your guard down, but true healing and the successful restructuring of systems require it — from all of us. Ridgle is one of a number of mental health specialists and advocates addressing the need for spaces where Black men can feel safe and vulnerable.
Another space created for Black people to share their experiences with one another in the Bay Area is Kocktails and Konversations, a monthly social event founded by certified recreational therapist Fancy Adin. It’s a place where people can share snacks, drinks, and conversation while benefiting from the professional opinions of licensed therapists like Ridgle, who has attended previously. Attendees discuss everything from relationships to wealth to self-care and mental health. Adin hosted her last two events online, and while she recently decided to put her events on hold, she is currently evaluating how to support her Kocktails and Konversations community as they continue to protest.
“People aren’t staying inside anymore; they want to take action,” she said. “They’re protesting outside, so I’m figuring out how to support them in doing that.”
Since pausing her events and attempting to process the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and, devastatingly, several others, Adin has now started to check in with her Black male relatives and close friends. “My brother and guy friends feel like what happened to George Floyd could have happened to them and that it still can,” she said. She’s committed to texting and calling her loved ones to reassure them that they’re loved and appreciated and can vent to her anytime.
The past few months have been extremely tough. “I was so focused on Covid until I shifted my focus to the murders, and now, I’ve shifted my focus to the riots,” she said. So, I haven’t really processed the virus in its entirety. As much as I am aware of the dangers around Covid, being Black is something I have to live through 365 days a year.”
Liku Madoshi, an attorney in San Francisco, feels a similar responsibility to creating safe environments for the Black community. In response to her own experience of being underrepresented in her workplace, Madoshi developed Tryb with one simple goal: Black women elevating Black women.
Madoshi created the group in October 2019 as she grew weary of feeling like “something as simple as asking a question” could make her look dumb. “It affected me emotionally,” she said.
The group’s events are free and touch on various stigmas and stereotypes, from being the strong friend to being “pretty for a Black girl” as well as themes like leaving baggage behind, self-sabotage, and, most recently, setting boundaries, which has become particularly difficult for Black women as they navigate taking care of themselves and their partners in the face of Covid-19 and police brutality.
What started off as loneliness during the pandemic has shifted to awareness and now to outrage.
“It’s another layer on top of everything else that we have going on, which makes setting boundaries that much more difficult and yet that much more important,” Madoshi says.
Considering the history of America’s relationship with Black people, particularly in regards to their health and survival, we’ve learned to rely on one another. When that gets to be too much for either party, we often fall back to just relying on ourselves. But the mindset that we can overcome anything without a support system just because of everything our ancestors survived is harmful. Thankfully, social media has proved to be a useful tool for building community through shared resources, like this Google Doc with info on how to stay safe and healthy while protesting and this Twitter thread of therapy resources for Black men and women.
As Ridgle said, “murder, trauma, a pandemic, and the exposure of a historically toxic system” have led to a surge in Black people pursuing mental health services. What started off as loneliness during the pandemic has shifted to awareness and now to outrage.
Nearly 60 years ago, writer and activist James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” It’s because of this that it’s so necessary for Black people to create spaces where they can not just survive but thrive. We must also create space for restructuring our system while taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. Then and only then can we fight for justice lovingly and efficiently.

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