People of color often come from families that are loud, loving, and family-oriented. Our cultures, although often portrayed in a negative light, are rich with foods and boisterous conversation. Our cultures also have another thing in common, and that is the denial and lack of acceptance when it comes to our mental health. Nearly every person who is a part of Sula has experienced some form of mental illness, and nearly every one of us was met with some sort of resistance or denial from family members. When it comes to mental illness, the difference between us and white people is that white people tend to acknowledge mental illness even if it is often used as an excuse to justify violence committed against others. People of color do not even acknowledge its existence.
If you come from a family that is spiritual or superstitious, you’ve probably had people tell you that your illness is a “demon” that you must work to get rid of. The feelings of sadness and anxiety are often blamed on us as if we can control the diseases ruining our lives. If we experience this sort of treatment for common illnesses such as depression and anxiety, imagine the PoC living with schizophrenia or some other form of psychosis. It is widely discussed among our people how often we are cast out over things we cannot control. Most people of color living with seriously debilitating mental illnesses often do not receive any form of treatment, whether it be meds or therapy, until it is too late.
White people further the destructive stereotype that black and latinx people are unable to be delicate and sensitive. To them, we have no emotions beyond anger. Our parents perpetuate this stereotype by refusing to pay attention to our emotional state. To them our silence is seen as giving attitude, when we sleep too much because our depression has caused us to become fatigued, they tell us we are lazy. Everyone with a mental illness knows that we are constantly plagued by negative thoughts toward ourselves and to have a family member reinforce those thoughts, causes us even more harm. For the people struggling with eating disorders, parents ignorance can cause them to become more destructive. Society as a whole is obsessed with body image, but within our communities and cultures there are different standards we must fit. Parents do not see that our cultures have body types we are expected to live up to and these expectations sometimes swallow us whole. They do not see that the food of our culture that we once loved so dearly is now the enemy. To them, our fear of food is stupidity and they will hear none of it.
Mental illness is painful on its own, but having a family that tells you you are weak and actively worsens your state of mind is another weight on our shoulders. People of color are often unable to receive treatment due to parents shame and embarrassment that their child could be so weak-minded and fall into what they consider to be a “white person thing”. They make us feel ashamed. Too many teens of color have been told that they “don’t need medication or therapy” and have been forced to live life feeling like they’ve run a marathon whenever they try to complete a simple, everyday task. Too many of us have been told that “we want something to be wrong” with us, as if mental illness is a quirky personality trait.
This issue is meant to represent all of the voices that were silenced when trying to speak up in order to get help, and to represent all of the voices that were lost because of lack of treatment and recognition for mental health in communities of color. Society and our cultures tell us we cannot feel these things because we are meant to be strong and angry and outspoken, not rundown and silent and sad. We are not emotionally stunted. Our brains are not wired to not feel anxious or depressed or to feel too many things at once. This issue is meant to help people of color speak up and address the problems within our communities. There are stories that shine hope on the progress made by younger generations and stories that show the pain caused by our elders. Mental illness in people of color is still stigmatized, but it is a stigma that we can get rid of by showing each other that it is nothing to be ashamed of.
“At the route of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.” -Michelle Obama
Words by Kassandra (K.) Piñero. Illustration by Sophia.