Living with mental illness is bad enough, but living with mental illness as a black woman makes it even worse.
The stigma surrounding mental illness, compounded with racial stereotypes, can be stifling. And clinicians and mental health professionals are not immune to harboring these biases.
As a black woman, my pain and discomfort isn’t seen as valid.
You might be surprised by how people spoke to me while in hospital. Professionals often assumed I had no education, despite my Bachelors degree. It was assumed my father wasn’t in my life, despite him waiting for me in the waiting room. After a suicide attempt when I purposely overdosed on my anti anxiety medication, I was labeled as a drug addict and pill seeker - not someone suffering from severe bipolar depression.
Being labeled as a drug addict, whether accurate or not, lends to a whole slew of other indignities. Both lay people and professionals can view drug addicts as liars and lacking in character. This showed up plainly in how some clinicians spoke to me. They went as far as to say I lied about the medication I took. They tried to force me to take medicine that I knew caused severe side effects.
As a black woman, my pain and discomfort isn’t seen as valid. A prime example was when I fainted on an inpatient ward after trying to tell the nurses that I didn’t feel well and being ignored. I was promptly scolded for “overreacting.” I’ve watched doctors ignore other black female patients who are trying to relay that a medication causes horrible side effects, only then for them to be forced to take the medication and get ill.
As a teenager I was effectively mute at times because of my illness. Speaking was, for lack of a better word, painful. However, I was still able to show fear, depression, disapproval and anxiety in other nonverbal ways.
Would he have done this with a little white girl?
I recall a doctor appointment with a new psychiatrist and both my parents sat in on it. My mother did most of the talking, explaining my behavior and history. All was going well until the end of the session when the psychiatrist asked for a hug.
What professional asks for a hug from their patients, I don’t know? What I do know is that when he approached me I started crying and shaking my head. He kept approaching and I was backed into a corner on the floor crying as my parents ripped into him about his unprofessional behavior.
Would he have done this with a little white girl? I don’t know. But the history of racism and white privilege makes me wonder that perhaps he wouldn’t.
During my late teens and early 20s I had to go to a mental health clinic, due to insurance. I was treated like a guinea pig most of my time. The appointments typically lasted no more than 10 minutes and little was ever resolved. These clinics were packed with people of color, clearly just hanging on by a thread.
The only way to start my journey to get proper care was by finding a black female private therapist
After years of experiencing micro aggressions because of my race and being spoken down to because of my illness, I stopped seeking help for a period of time.
This was both a gift and a curse. Firstly, it exacerbated the symptoms of my illness to a fever pitch. However, this was the only way I was able to start the journey to get proper care, by draining my finances to go to private practices and also find a black female therapist.
I feel that race has played less of a factor in my treatment with private doctors. But I also recognize that these very same doctors and others like them are inaccessible to many people of color. They are extremely cost prohibitive.
I recognise the privilege of having supportive parents that can shoulder either the cost of treatment or tackle the bureaucracy of insurance companies.
Race coupled with mental illness, creates a unique set of problems.
These problems are often discussed by clients, but the people that need to hear just aren’t listening.