7 Mental Health Advocates Share What Stigmas They Face As A Person Of Color With Mental Illness
In the world of mental health awareness, there are myriad stigmas that make it harder to get treatment. For people of color who live with mental illness, those stigmas can be compounding. Whether it's the dangerous myth that Black men are "too strong" to seek mental health treatment, or that only certain women can experience an eating disorder, these stigmas are incredibly damaging, and often render people of color who experience mental health issues invisible.
But, of course, mental health issues affect people of any race or identity. According to Mental Health America (MHA), 8.9 million Latinx people in the U.S. live with a diagnosable mental illness, but, as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found, only 36 percent of Latinx people with depression received care. And the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health issue than the general population, but only 25 percent of Black Americans with mental illness receive treatment. What’s more, the APA reported that Indigenous Americans and Alaskans “experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population," and the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Indigenous communities are twice that of the general U.S. population.
Long story short, mental illness is far from being a health issue that only affects some people, and for people of color, the particular stigmas around mental health they face can create a uniquely isolating experience. These mental health advocates tell Bustle the unique stigmas they face as a person of color who lives with mental illness, and how they combat them.
1Alison Mariella Désir-Figueroa
"I think that the myth of the strong black woman plagued, and continues to plague me as an Afrolatina woman who suffers from anxiety and depression. The burden of typically always being seen as resilient, tough and a 'boss' doesn't leave much room for vulnerability," says Alison Mariella Désir-Figueroa, an entrepreneur, athlete, activist, and mental health counselor in training.
"After not being on medication for several years, I recently started taking an anti-anxiety medication again, and I had to wrestle myself away from the line of thinking that this was somehow a personal failure or a step back in the wrong direction," she says. "The messages we receive about mental illness, and the negative stigmas associated with it are ones that we all must continue to speak openly about because, even as a mental health professional and mental health advocate, I am affected. Through my work and advocacy, I hope to create spaces and communities that normalize mental healthcare, particularly for people of color."
Elyse Fox, a filmmaker and the founder of Sad Girls Club, tells Bustle, "In the past, society has made me feel the most displaced as a woman of color with a mental illness. Growing up, I never had any examples of people of color striving through life while living with depression, anxiety, etc. Representation truly matters in making mental health conversations normal, and shameless to discuss."
"As a person of color with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, people made me feel as if what I was going through wasn’t real. Specifically coming from Latinx households, my family made me feel like I needed to be at an 'extreme' point in order to access the care that I needed, which was therapy," says Amy Quichiz, a writer, activist, and the co-founder of Veggie Mijas. "I believe there are still many stigmas such as not wanting to talk about it, dismissing it by saying, 'ella está loca' [she's crazy], instead of acknowledging mental health. It took me a while to believe that taking medication for my mental health was OK, and to talk about depression and anxiety without it being a 'private issue that stays within family.'"
Quichiz adds, "I think the more we talk about it, the more we have other folks of color to acknowledge the truth, and face their vulnerabilities — which is a good thing and part of the healing process."
Chamique Holdsclaw, an Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA player who's now a vocal mental health advocate, and star behind the documentary Mind/Game, tells Bustle, "A unique stigma and discrimination I’ve faced as a person of color with mental illness is the expectation of praying away my illness. From others' stories that have been shared with me, minority groups are faced with not being right in their religion or spirituality as to why they are experiencing mental illness, which to me is a dangerous point of view and keeps people from speaking up and seeking help.”
Gloria Lucas, the founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride, says that "One of the unique struggles I faced as a brown womxn with an eating disorder was no advocacy for me in the professional eating disorders world, and no language to talk about unhealthy relationships with food in my own community. Considering how eating disorders are portrayed as mainly affecting white, thin, and affluent women, I was never able to see my own reflection — which only increased my isolation, and the severity of my eating disorder."
"As a Latinx woman who struggles with multiple mental illnesses, it saddens me to admit that the most stigma I have received towards my mental health has been from my own family," says Deb Blake, a mental health advocate and activist with Utah Against Police Brutality. "I grew up in a "no se habla de eso" [we don't talk about it] culture. I was constantly told that I was just being dramatic, and that my illness wasn't real. Trips to mental health facilities were 'vacations.'"
"I was in a session with a therapist at college, and after explaining the dynamics and challenges with my family, she told me that I needed to stand up to my mother and fight against how she raised me. I felt attacked, and I also felt like my mother was being attacked," says Dior Vargas, a mental health activist who founded the People Of Color and Mental Illness Project, which has since been transformed into a full-length book titled The Color Of My Mind. "The therapist wasn’t understanding that this was my [Latinx] culture, family is extremely important, and things aren’t done that way in my household. I stopped seeing her after that, because I knew I couldn’t be comfortable and open with her again."
Our conversations surrounding mental health awareness need to keep expanding by making space for people of color to safely voice their experiences, and to share their unique experiences of mental health discrimination. It's time to get rid of the mental health stigmas that have kept people of color with mental illness from either seeking treatment, or receiving quality care.