About 7% of Americans experience serious depression each year. Recently, research has shown that depressive occurrences among African Americans are more disabling and persistent than those experienced by white Americans. Additionally, in 2015, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that African Americans were 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, despite this, African Americans are less likely to seek out and receive mental health treatment – with less than 55% of African Americans receiving treatment in 2011 compared to the 73% of white Americans who did. The potential explanation for this, lies among the culture and attitudes of African Americans.
‘Depression? Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That’
Historically, African Americans went from slavery to minimal labor jobs. Black women initially were only able to get employment as domestic servants, housekeepers or maids; and while there may have been some differences regarding the duties of each job, the primary responsibility for these jobs were ensuring that the family remained on track. This included preparing meals, maintaining the home, raising the children and encouraging the parents – thus forming feelings within black women that they have all of the responsibility (for the household) on their shoulders. Even in modern times, though it is changing as black men are becoming more involved with their families, black women were tasked with raising their children on their own with minimal support. All of these factors have formed a mindset of ‘not having time’ because black women feel as though they already have so much to do, that they don’t have time for anything that is going to interrupt their routine.
Kimberly Wilkins aka Sweet Brown, an Oklahoma City resident, perfectly illustrated this when she was interviewed by KFOR News Channel 4 in 2012. The local news station was reporting on a three-alarm fire, which broke out in Ms. Wilkins’ apartment complex leaving one person hospitalized for smoke inhalation and five units damaged. When describing the heavy presence of smoke from the fire, Ms. Wilkins uttered “ain’t nobody got time for that!” – immortalizing herself within meme culture. While it is funny, it’s very telling of a black woman’s state of mind. As a way to further explain this, allow me to add some more context to Ms. Wilkins’ statement: “I need to get work. I have to get in my house and shower and get ready. Ain’t nobody got time for this… I have to be at work in a couple of hours.” This sense of responsibility is what prevents many black women from reaching out for help, because, due to everything else they have to do, most aren’t allowing themselves time to assess their mental wellbeing.
For black men, their looks or bodies have always been the main focus. As slaves, black men with stronger builds were desired for fieldwork. When they transitioned into the workforce, they were only able to perform cheap labor, with most still performing the same work they did while they were slaves. Since black men weren’t seen for their intellect or emotional intelligence, it formed a type of toxic masculinity found prominently within black culture. With many black men not being taught how to process and talk about their feelings, they’ve begun to feel a sense of isolation and anger from feeling as though they have to ‘man up, suppress it and move on’. This creates an emotional volatility that can sometimes manifest itself as ‘shutting down’ in relationships and friends. And as we already know, a lot of black women “don’t have time for that” (because a lot of them are doing so much while they feel as though a lot of black men have remained stagnant) – this, in addition to the current political climate, has made black men feel as though no one cares about their emotional state, which has caused instances of resentment (evidenced in how some black men talk so negatively about black women) and outward expressions of anger, aggression, and violence. These displays of macho-ness further point to a fear of vulnerability among black men, which in turn prevents many from seeking help.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
African Americans’ continued presence within the society that victimized them has caused every aspect of their thinking and decision-making to be influenced by the injustices they continually experience. From hair choices to job options, there’s a subconscious decision being made, influenced by how someone else’s choices were perceived by white society [examples include the federal court’s previous legal ruling to ban dreadlocks in the workplace or the young professionals who were kicked out of Starbucks for holding a business meeting].
W.E.B. DuBois described this subconscious conflict in 1903 as double consciousness. This involves a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Indeed, it’s this strength combined with such motivations like self-protection and self-enhancement, that is the foundational element of many African American mindsets. Additionally, these same attributes may also have some impact on the low number of African Americans who seek help for psychological issues, as many African Americans focus on improving their immediate circumstances rather than their mental health.
Whether it’s moving out of poverty, providing for one’s family, receiving an education or overcoming violence within their neighborhoods – many African Americans have started to feel as though their immediate physical and material needs override their need for mental health treatment. A great example that furthers explains this is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which utilizes a diagram to illustrate how self-actualization cannot be achieved if needs from the lower levels have not been met yet.
As an example, someone who is hungry (think: someone starving, unsure of where or when they will eat again) will not find the needs higher up in the pyramid (like confidence, respect, mental well-being) to be a priority. With African Americans constantly fighting to be on the same level as their white American counterparts, they’re confined to the lower portions of the pyramid, making it harder for them to worry about the higher aspirations – subsequently making mental health as a whole widely disregarded among the black community.
This then has an impact on the younger generations of black Americans. As Millennials have already been talked down upon by the media (due to our preference for spending money on travel, food, and experiences rather than physical things like homes and cars), many would rather not approach their older family members with mental health worries out of fear of how they will be perceived.
Matthew Gates, Journalist for HuffPost, stated it best: “If someone of color is facing mental uncertainties, we only seem to label them as the ‘crazy’ family member or friend, gossip about their ‘craziness,’ and ask everybody in the church to pray for them. We as people are applauded when we bring home good grades or accolades, routinely apply for jobs, keep the house clean, represent the family name well, etc. However, when we attempt to open up to our parents or peers of color about our mental instabilities, their immediate response is ‘there ain’t nothing wrong with you.’ In result, we attempt to combat our feelings and emotions, by ourselves, in our head, which isn’t healthy.”
Millennials have been raised to believe that they can do anything they set their minds to, as long as they work hard. However, Millennials are among the hardest working group of individuals and still aren’t able to achieve their goals (including affording luxuries like houses or cars). When they try to tell their parents how they feel due to this, they are met with ‘well, maybe you’re not doing enough.’ or ‘if you don’t have enough money, get another job.’ Yet this only downplays the feelings associated with not being where one wants to be, as well as being borderline condescending. This advice seemingly treats the symptom but not the cause.
To combat this, Millennials turned to the one thing that has always been ‘our thing’ – the internet.
Memes have become a popular way to share interest and frustration for various societal actions. Memes similar to Ms. Wilkins’ have facilitated conversations between multiple demographics, as providing a way to poke fun at society while also forming a shared community amongst young people. For black Americans this is even more so as the collective “Black Twitter” has actively helped to normalize talking openly about mental health issues, specifically as it pertains to African Americans. Utilizing memes and tweets that project images that others can relate to, has become a way of coping for young people by showing that they aren’t alone in dealing with mental health issues or societal pressures.
While Millennials have gotten a reputation as being spoiled, lazy or ‘too into their phones’, they’ve been on the forefront of destigmatizing negative feelings towards mental health and self-care. This is extremely important as younger generations are experiencing more pressure due to feelings of not being where they should be (as education rates continue to rise while obtaining degrees no longer guarantee employment). It’s important that these conversations are occurring as it forces people to address potential deficits in their well-being. Especially for African Americans in a society that still does not completely support them, having a platform to talk about the daily injustices many face creates a sense of community – which in turn creates its own unique support system, which can result in a positive effect on mental health and emotional well-being.
We are our own ally and I love that young people are embracing it.
- Marx, Adina. Barriers Faced by African Americans in Receiving Mental Health Care. FamiliesUSA. 2019
- National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Brother, You’re on My Mind.
- ColtenW and Kim, Brad. Sweet Brown/Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That. Know your Meme. 2012. updated in 2018.
- McLeod, Saul. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simple Psychology. 2018.
- Carey, Kathleen and Midlothian, Virginia. Maslow and #BlackLivesMatter. Odyssey. 2016.
- Marie, Jenny. Millennials and Mental Health. National Alliance on Mental Illness. 2019.
- Gates, Matthew. Mental Health in the Black Community. HuffPost. 2017.
- Neal-Barnett, PhD, Angela. To be Female, Anxious and Black. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- Caraballo, Jor-El. Why Black Men Face Greater Mental Health Challenges. Talkspace. 2018.