April Feature: The Privilege of Mental Health

Illustration by Nicki Diacik

“Mental health” wasn’t something I took seriously until I hit my lowest point.

I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so obviously I went to the internet for answers. Overtime, I found solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only one who felt helpless, but I also wondered why I wasn’t exposed to the conversation prior to my “rock bottom” moment.

I honestly didn’t feel the words “depressed” or “anxious” applied to me until the symptoms were listed to me at college orientation and even then, I had no idea what to do about it.

Time passed, I started working in the Center for the Study of Race, Culture and Ethnicity, I was exposed to more discussion surrounding mental health pertaining specifically to minority groups. I already knew that being a minority in America was stressful. It’s a country built for white faces off of the backs of colored bodies.

Today, there are major systems still in place that make it hard for anyone but those white faces to succeed. But we already knew that. What I hadn’t considered was the toll it took on the collective minority well-being and the mental health of colored individuals.

Racial privilege restricts opportunity from minority groups in almost every aspect of American life, and it is especially and unfortunately true regarding mental health treatment.

I was born in Inglewood, CA, but I was raised in Santa Clarita, a relatively-wealthy white suburb north of LA. I experienced racism growing up, but frankly I didn’t pick up on most of it until I got to college and realized a lot of what I considered “funny” back then was at the expense of my sense of self.

Whenever I would try to open up about my headspace with my parents, they would feel guilty for having failed their son. They worked hard to move their black boy out of the ghetto, only for him to feel alienated by the lack of a black community in his new neighborhood.

Entirely to my parent’s credit, I have yet to experience any relative hardship. I was exposed to and walked through the signs of depression at an over-priced, private, liberal arts college. I’ve been told how to cope with my depression and I have access to resources to help me along the way.

Over time, I’ve developed a stable emotional support system through new and healthy friendships. I say all of this as a college educated man coming from suburban-ass southern California. Sure, I’m still “depressed” but I am privileged as fuck to even know I’m depressed in the first place.

The only reason I feel so comfortable and open talking about my mental health is because I was provided tremendous amounts of opportunities growing up. The only reason I had those opportunities is because my parents worked their asses off to move me out of the ghetto at a young age. I realize there are a lot of people who look like me without being born into economic privilege, and I also realize without my privilege, I wouldn’t be nearly as stable as I am now.

Dr. Courtney Ferrell Aklin, the Chief of Staff at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities has discussed the impact of the “stigma” surrounding mental health in minority communities. According to Aklin, “...mental illness carries the highest disease burden among all diseases, with devastating effects on daily functioning; personal, social, and occupational impairment; and premature death if left untreated.”

In other words, if your family is trying to work their way into a new neighborhood, your “feelings” shouldn’t take up valuable work time. And even if you were able to take the time to focus on helping yourself, it’s not as easy as saying, “I want to be better.”

When it comes to actually getting help, minority groups have trouble getting access to adequate mental health resources, finding the time to go and making sure they have transportation to get there.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that even with access to adequate mental health resources, there is still the possibility of experiencing racism or bias while trying to receive treatment.

Getting through the door is one thing, making sure you’re in the right place is another, and having the strength to continue the self-healing process sounds near impossible. Now imagine all of that without speaking English as a first language.

Taking down “systemic depression” would probably involve some kind of marxist overthrow. I’m down, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. In the meantime though, I believe the first step is being open, honest and accepting of our own mental health and the mental health of others.

It shouldn’t be taboo to say you’re upset and if you “don’t get why someone’s upset” or “don’t understand depression”, then try. Make sure they feel heard instead of telling them “You’re crazy” or “You’re fine” because neither of those things are true. It’s okay to get help, it’s okay to tell other people you need help, and if someone tries to tell you “you don’t need help,” tell them to go fuck themselves (respectfully).

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