That Nikka’s Crazy
Many may not find the title of this piece particularly shocking or offensive. That particular phrase has been normalized and used flippantly to describe one’s shock by the ideas or actions of an acquaintance; it is sometimes even used as an endearing term within the black community. But what takes place when we are actually faced with mental illness personally or someone we love experiences it? Are we just as comfortable with confronting the reality of mental illness as our casual vernacular seems to suggest? If we aren’t comfortable confronting this reality, what is the reason behind the apparent disconnect?
Several studies, surveys, statistics and interviews highlight the discrepancies when it comes to African Americans and mental health care. We are 20% more likely to be in psychological distress. We struggle with feelings of helplessness, desperation and sadness due to environmental stressors such as poverty, poor nutrition, police brutality, etc. We’re more likely to experience suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of our tendency to live in hostile environments that make us victims of physical and mental aggression, as well as sexual violence and abuse. Add to this the very challenging stressors that many Black women face. We are often raising children without a mate. Single black women without children often carry the role of family nurturer/supporter; they are tasked with handling the affairs of the extended family network. There should be no surprise that black women face the highest levels of depression in comparison to other groups. This is a tremendous amount of stress we are attempting to manage.
Even in facing all of these issues, we still seem to avoid confronting the reality of mental illness. Part of this is because we are living in a system that isn’t balanced; maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviors have developed as a method of ‘coping and surviving’ in a hostile environment, so what’s maladaptive has unfortunately been ‘normalized’. What had been ‘normalized’ is not working for us collectively. During slavery, in order to survive the psychological horrors of seeing family members sold off to other plantations, beatings, killings, etc., we developed the ability to temporarily disconnect from our emotions….to stuff and ignore our pain. Dr. Joy DeGruy, renowned author, Social Work Researcher and lecturer has catapulted serious discussions surrounding the theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) into the academic and medical sphere. According to Dr. DeGruy, PTSS is “a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery; a form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.”
In a lecture, she describes how whites developed theories to justify slavery and how those theories of African people were then codified and promoted as a means to “lessen the evil” of slavery. Some of these theories seem to have been internalized by us as a means of adapting under a vicious and hostile system. For example, Thomas Jefferson posited that black people were incapable of feeling grief. Of course this theory was used to justify the horrendous treatment of African people. Now imagine the severely traumatized victim(s) being constantly exposed to such theories, along with the abuse, through the social institutions of the time(s). This might explain why there was and still is a tendency for us to stuff our feelings to avoid showing “weakness” or to “self-medicate” through food, illicit drugs and other addictions.
Take for example, famous comedian Richard Pryor, who was raised in the small town of Peoria in Illinois. Richard was exposed to the virulent racism of Peoria along with being the victim of horrendous abuse. In addition to growing up in a brothel run by his grandmother, who was said to have whipped him for every eccentricity, his mother being a prostitute and father a pimp/drug dealer, Richard was raped at age 6 by a neighbor and molested by a Catholic Priest at a school that eventually expelled him. It is quite apparent why Richard Pryor struggled with addiction when considering what he faced at such a young tender age without receiving any long term care or treatment; he was attempting to self-medicate, which is all too common and also points to our overrepresentation in jails and prisons. Although blacks engage in less drug use than whites, we are more likely to receive a punitive course of action for our addictions as opposed to “curative care” in the form of counseling and treatment.
This is why we must elevate our discussion of mental illness; our silence is imprisoning us in mind, body and spirit. The silence and shame surrounding mental illness does not serve our healing as a people, nor does it help us to systematically and effectively confront the systems and institutions that serve as major stressors in our lives. We need to work against the many myths about our inability to feel pain. Too many of us have bought into the myth of ALWAYS being the “strong one”, so much so that we don’t allow ourselves to “have a safe place to decompress” which leads to high levels of anxiety and depression. It also partially explains our tendency to be reluctant to reach out and get treatment by a professional. We have bought into the myth that mental imbalance is simply just the “devil being busy” or “a sign of weakness” when often it is the body’s way of adjusting to prolonged, unaddressed trauma and/or prolonged stress. It is like any other illness; people aren’t shamed for high blood pressure and neither should people with mental illnesses. Both conditions are treatable and manageable. Additionally, because the medical profession suffers from the same institutionalized racism as other institutions, we desperately needed more culturally sensitive black people to consider going into the fields of counseling, psychotherapy and psychiatry. Our lack of resources and personnel regarding mental health care compounds the issue of reluctance towards treatment; many who seek out treatment do not continue it due to the cultural insensitivity of those who currently tend to be providing it the most.
As one who is challenged with mental illness personally, I look at it like this; sometimes…. my mind has the flu. It suffers from the “aches and pains” of “disjointed” thoughts triggered by childhood memories of sexual abuse. The “weakness and fatigue” of fighting mental battles with these memories make me want to stay in bed much longer than usual. This is a “headache” of a different type, but it IS indeed manageable and treatable. The first step is being willing to give it a name….it must be acknowledged in order to be confronted. Once that is done, you will develop an arsenal of tools to successfully manage your condition and balance your life.