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On the Front Line After Another Racial Trauma

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Another life has been claimed.

Another hashtag has surfaced.

We’ve said the names of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile over and over, and now we are saying Terence Crutcher.

Throughout the week the nation expressed confusion, fear, anger and outrage. Lines were drawn. Debates filled the comment sections and news feeds of media sites — but here we are again. In the same place of defeat and brokenness that has characterized this nation for too long.

What permits this ideology? What justifies these crimes against black and brown identities?

The system.

These behaviors and practices are reinforced by society. We cannot rationalize the pain. We cannot make sense of injustice. And as my fellow Mighty warrior, Amanda Lynch suggested, we cannot undermine the effects of racial trauma.

The result of injustice is ingrained in every facet of our lives. The result is harassment and bullying in schools. The result is violence and assault. The result is profiling and stereotyping. The result is punitive procedures and biases that work against black and brown youth. The result is loss.

Loss of our lives, freedoms and safety. Loss of our families, homes and peace of mind.

As a teen, I was heavily bullied. The taunts and threats followed me from the classroom to social media. There was no escape. I was ostracized because of my differences. My otherness made me a target. The isolation and withdrawal escalated into depression. Shaping my reality was no longer in my control. I was at the mercy of others.

So many youth grow up feeling unsafe in their own neighborhoods, schools and communities. The anxiety can stem from environmental factors. They may be picked on by their peers or humiliated by teachers or campus police. Part of what contributes to that toxic climate is prejudice and discrimination.

Headlines sensationalize the injustices that occur nationwide, but do little to address the aftermath. What about the populations of those who are left to grieve? What happens when it’s not easy to bounce back? Where are the resources for those who are economically disadvantaged? Accessibility to mental health care and education should not be a privilege.

Discussions of mental health are still stigmatized in communities of color. That is why more support is needed to ensure that needs are met and that options are viable.

We are reminded of our obstacles every day. We carry the weight and the burden. What about the hope? What about the possibility of change? What about our choices?

Without education and resources the barriers between equity and opportunity will widen. Perceptions of mental health will continue to be rooted in negative and untrue misconceptions. Without accountability, division will prevail.

If we leave it up to the lawmakers to make change, we will still be waiting.

That is why change begins here and now.

First, we must undo the damage.

We cannot bring back the lives of those we lost, but can honor their memory. We can do more to support their families, to ensure that they are heard. We can do more to support each other, to alleviate the toll of racial trauma. Depression is often viewed as “white” or as a weakness or flaw, yet some overlook the issues that contribute to trauma, withdrawal and isolation.

Data compiled by Monnica T Williams shows individuals who experience microaggressions (subtle acts of racism) and individuals who experience hate crimes are both prone to PTSD. Furthermore, almost one out of 10 black people are traumatized to some degree.

This pattern reflects a history of suffering and oppression. A history we are forced to relive every day.

Research also proves that racism is linked to depression and anxiety.

People of color are vulnerable because of the psychological distress they experience throughout their lifetimes.

That doesn’t mean we are flawed. That doesn’t mean we are weak.

Rather, we are at a point of desperation. The news is proof of this. Our experiences and narratives all reflect a point of no return. Enough is enough.

We all must exclaim: Stop killing us. Stop damaging us. Stop contributing to the cycle of unrest.

Next, we must repair the heartache.

Processing the trauma of my teenage years took a lifetime. I am still recovering. As a visible advocate for marginalized youth, I still face attacks. Only now, I am equipped with the resources I need to stand up against racial injustice and to stand up against depression.

On the good days I remember to:

Thank those around me. The love and support of those who stick by me is unreal. I am free to be myself in good company. I am not ashamed or anxious or afraid. I am prized. When I feel uplifted, I use that as an opportunity to uplift others, because I know that change is within reach.

Live in the moment. When I am joyful, there is no reason to be apologetic. Depressed individuals can experience profound happiness. Even in the face of adversity. Those who have overcome racial trauma, violence and injustice do not have to explain their smiles, hopes and dreams. We deserve to be free, loud and bold without reservation.

Express myself. Scream! Cry! Vent. Let out the frustration and rage in constructive, peaceful and beneficial ways for the community. Bottling it in only proved to be more problematic for me. I may have been trying to conceal my emotions and preserve my dignity, but it was at the expense of my health. Vocalizing my experiences and focusing on the experiences of others opened my eyes. It allowed me to have a voice and to give a voice to others.

On the bad days I remember to:

Unplug. Writing makes it hard to step away from Twitter and Facebook, but internalizing the brutal videos with every share and click is devastating. There is a time to rally but there is also a time to rest.

Practice self-care. This is vital for everyday life, but when it is especially difficult to cope or I am insulted or verbally attacked, I make it a point to revitalize, reassess and recharge. It is not selfish. It is necessary.

For other social justice warriors, students, leaders, game changers and allies:

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. From a friend, parent, educator or professional. If you do not know where to go ask someone you trust.

Surround yourself in communities that empower you. There may be times when you need to process your pain on your own terms and your own time, but involvement within campus clubs or causes can be a lifeline.

Mute the hatred. Block out the negativity. You don’t need to torture yourself with graphic footage, naysayers and haters. If you begin to feel a decline in your mood, take time to focus on you.

As a woman of color, I find myself on the front line. I rush to aid others and to advocate and educate the youth, but often forget about myself. Thankfully, the struggle is shared. In my ventures, I will be tested. But I will be in the midst of other activists and educators who bear the same cross. In these times, I am reminded of all that I have overcome and all that I will face. I know that social justice rests in our hands. I know we deserve peace.

As a nation, I know we are capable of healing.

Image credit: original photo by Denise Nichole Andrews

 

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8 Steps That Helped Me Build Confidence While Living With Mental Illness

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I’m feeling incredible. I’m having a great time with everyone. I feel part of something; the inclusion satisfies all my desires. Then I accidentally see my reflection, and it hits me like an electric shock. Do I really look like that? God. I need to leave. People can be cruel, but we can be crueler to ourselves. Missed opportunities from fear and anxiety can fill us with regret.

How can someone have the confidence to achieve their dreams when they become silenced by their reflection?

What about those of us who can’t leave the house, or bed, out of fear?

The following are a few steps that helped me on my journey to building confidence while living with mental illness.

1. Support comes first.

If you’re at your lowest: suicidal, hospitalized, or worse — you need support. It’s difficult to do this on your own. I recommend you accept that and find yourself a good therapist, a good friend, anyone who can help you take the right step to rehabilitation.

2. Try a mask on for size.

I didn’t want people to know how I felt, but living in a social vacuum was only feeding my illness. So every day I put on a mask. I had created everything from intricate backstories to personality traits. If I wasn’t myself, nobody could judge me. For me, it was just about getting out there and seeing the world in whatever context I was able.

3. Find your passion.

Join different clubs, meet new people, do things out of your comfort zone. I needed to do these things away from anyone who knew me; I didn’t want to be recognized while I was trying to find my footing in life. If you can do it with a friend or a partner, even better. The goal was to find something I enjoyed. It might take days or years, but it’s worth the investigation.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of employment.

I believe we are meant to be busy. And you don’t have to be a doctor (yet), but if you can find a job with maximum exposure to people, you could be ahead of the rest.

5. Don’t forget your super pill.

Surely you’ve heard of the super pill? A drug that can benefit pretty much everybody: exercise. The word takes a different meaning for all of us. I don’t want you to define it as something that leads to fear and embarrassment. Ignore the Instagram celebrities and the shake religions. But I believe exercise can boost your success rate of beating any kind of adversity. Unsure of what to do or when to do it? See an exercise physiologist, a professional who can prescribe you exercise in a safe, holistic approach to improve your mental and physical well-being. Or just get out there and get moving.

6. Face your fears.

My illness involved a fear of mirrors. I could not pass one without checking to see what I looked like, only to see a monster staring back at me. This could not continue for the rest of my life. I had to face it, again and again. It started with my bathroom mirror, then it progressed to claustrophobic changing room stalls that had two or three mirrors. Eventually it became wall mirrors at gyms.

Whatever your fear, I suggest taking small steps in facing it. This is hard training — nothing on this list is easy. It may even seem fantastical. But we deserve to try.

7. Become the person you deserve to be.

Go back to that mask you may choose to wear. How does it fit? Was it ever really a mask? Or was it the person you’ve always wanted to be? Perhaps your alter ego was more confident, made friends more easily, did things you wouldn’t consider. But it was always you.

Only you will know when you’re up to this stage, but it’s time to be honest with yourself and others. This is when you can identify with your illness and have the strength to form real relationships and follow your passions.

8. Help others.

You’re not the first to go through this, and you won’t be the last. There has been an uprising on social media about mental illness. Stories are being shared, people are coming together, and it feels as though support is higher than ever.

I believe those living with mental illness are made of something else. Their strength and resilience in life can inspire all. I feel we need to come together, help each other, and form a tribe of mental health and wellness.

Image via Thinkstock.

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To Anyone Who's Waiting for the 'Right Time' to Seek Help for Your Mental Health

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Seeking help for dealing with your mental illness can be a very off-putting idea. It took me years and countless confrontations with my parents for me to realize I really couldn’t do it alone. Nothing was changing. The day I called the counselor’s office I had narrowed it down to two options. Number one: Get help. Number two: Die. Even though the second option was not appealing at all, it took me much longer to decide than it should have because I just wasn’t ready.

There are so many pro’s to seeking a professional for help when recovering from mental illness that far outweigh the reasons to put it off until you feel more comfortable. So here’s a list of five reasons you shouldn’t wait until you’re ready to get help.

1. It’s not as big of a deal as you think it is.

There it is, plain and simple. Going to see a therapist or counselor is not a big deal. It’s the same as going to see a doctor for the flu or getting an X-ray after crashing your bike. All of the shame and embarrassment you might feel is due to the stigma surrounding mental illness in general. It isn’t at all what our society has made it out to be.

2. Nervousness isn’t a good enough excuse.

You should never let being scared keep you from doing something. Feelings of apprehension toward change and the unknown are completely normal, but allowing those feelings to stop you from taking a necessary step isn’t OK. Think about it. If your friend is in a play or has to speak in front of a bunch of people, they’ll probably be a little freaked out. Do you say, “Oh you’re nervous? Then, you definitely shouldn’t do it.” No, you encourage them. You tell them you believe in them and they’ll be glad they did it. Most of the time, they come away from that experience having grown in some way. Why are we so quick to give ourselves an out for feeling some stage fright?

3. Your illness doesn’t define you.

I say this in some form or fashion in almost everything I write. It’s so true and I don’t think it will ever be said enough. You are not your illness. Losing the illness does not equal losing a part of yourself. You are a person who has a problem that they need help to solve. Seeking a professional doesn’t make you “crazy.” You’re not “crazy” if you have an mental illness. You just need help. Therapy helps you get back on your feet. It doesn’t give you a label or a new personality. It teaches you skills and lessons to help you be a healthier version of the person you already are.

4. Every day you wait is a day you’ll never get back.

The longer you wait to get help, the longer it takes to get better. That means more time not being able to get out of bed, more time feeling like you’re not in control of your own mind or even just more time you can’t spend doing things you love with people you love. That’s day after day that you might come to regret, which could lead to some dangerous “what ifs.” Just save yourself some pain and make that first appointment because, as a wise person once said, YOLO.

5. You’ll never really be ready.

That voice in your head giving you all of those seemingly fantastic reasons to just wait a little longer is never going to run out of ideas. It will keep persuading and reasoning with you for as long as you allow it. There will always be a reason as to why now might not be a good time. If you wait until you feel absolutely no reservation or doubt about getting help, then you’re going to be waiting for a miracle.

There is no shame in admitting you need help. It’s actually the first step to recovery. Mental illness affects your life in ways you aren’t aware of until you’re looking back. Staying in a place of pain and dysfunction isn’t necessary. Getting help can be hard, and there are some jerks in this world who are probably going to have an opinion about you choosing to go to therapy; however, your happiness and well being are more important than anyone’s opinion. So, do yourself a favor. Stop waiting to feel ready because you deserve better than your illness.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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The Monsters in My Head

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Anyone who has ever lived with a mental illness can especially relate to what author Stephen King has said: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

Sometimes mental disorders do feel like a monster living inside of our heads, trying to overtake us. When someone loses their life to suicide, that’s when the monster wins.

For the longest time, I couldn’t watch scary movies or read horror novels because they felt too real and would make my anxiety spin out of control. While some kids thought a monster was living under their beds, for me, it felt like a monster was following me around everywhere I went. This monster manifested in night terrors, an irrational fear of death, the walls closing in on me and a racing heart.

I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. So, in my 6-year-old mind, I thought it was a monster, a demon or a ghost that was with me, causing me to feel that way. Cut to today, where my favorite television shows are, “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story.” I’m also halfway through reading “It” by Stephen King. Now that I have my anxiety under control and I understand what it is, horror stories don’t scare me anymore.

Treatment became my wooden stake and my silver bullets. It gave me the tools I needed to overcome my monster. Now, I know I am stronger than the monster in my head. It didn’t kill me, and I believe I am a better person today for having battled it.

If you are struggling with mental illness, then visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for more information on finding a mental health professional. You are not alone. You don’t have to lay down and let the monster win. There are so many options available and so many people who are willing to help if you just ask.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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11 Things Not to Say When You’re Talking to Someone About Their Mental Illness

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It’s often hard to know how our words can affect someone because we only stand in our own shoes. To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of things you shouldn’t say when you’re talking to someone about their mental illness. The items on this list come straight from the suggestions of real people living with mental illness.

1. “You’re being dramatic.”

I’m being dramatic? Seriously?

Mental illness is not equivalent to breaking a shoe and screaming about it for days. It is a real condition. It can manifest into panic attacks that mimic heart attacks, or when someone is triggered their entire body might break out into hives. Getting out of bed in the morning can seem like the worst thing that could possibly happen.

So you’re correct about one thing. Mental illness is completely dramatic for the person who has it. However, it is in no way, shape or form a person being dramatic.

2. “Try ignoring it.”

Oh wow! Great advice! I didn’t try ignoring it! I mean, I’ve tried psychologists, psychiatrists, medication and lifestyle changes. But hey, maybe I could try ignoring it! Thanks for the peachy suggestion.

Most people with a mental illness have likely tried ignoring it. It creates way more problems than good. As you saw with number one, it’s something that shouldn’t and simply can’t be ignored. It’s so important to take some time to focus on it and heal. Ignoring it doesn’t work.

3. “Try just living with it.”

Yeah, you know I tried that and then I literally wanted to kill myself. So I think I’ll keep doing it my way.

4. “Maybe you could trigger yourself more so you can practice handling it.”

Oh, I didn’t realize you were a qualified practicing psychologist! Do I have to pay you for this session or is it on the house?

5. “Well, at least you don’t have to deal with (insert bad thing here).”

Do you like when people minimize the things in your life? No. So don’t minimize mine. Everyone has their struggles. No need to compare.

6. “Why are you trying to make your whole life a saga?”

To suggest (or straight out say) someone is intentionally putting themselves in this situation is straight up ridiculous. It is demoralizing to hear a person tell you that you enjoy the drama surrounding mental illness. The symptoms people with mental illness face are not a saga like “Twilight.” They are a nightmare you need to learn to reduce the power of. Don’t suggest I create this life for myself as if I’m trying to write a good story. If I wanted a story, then I would make myself a princess.

7. “But you seem so normal/ you look healthy? Are you sure?”

Again, your MD comes from which university? Thanks for telling me you think based on whatever limited knowledge you have of my physical appearance or personality that I’m totally fine. I really appreciate it. I’ll just call up the pharmacy and tell them I won’t be needing that prescription refilled being that I’m totally cured!

Mental illness manifests differently in every single person. Don’t presume you know what it looks like in everyone, even if you’ve seen what it looks like in some people.

8. Avoid any insensitive remarks that generalize, stereotype or are based on stigma.

Examples of this would be:

It’s giving me such post-traumatic stress disorder!

Oh my gosh, I’m so depressed!

That girl looks totally anorexic.

You sound “schizo.”

I wanted to kill myself it was so boring.

Yeah, that test gave me a panic attack.

When someone is actually living with or knows someone with PTSD, depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, an anxiety disorder or any other mental illness, hearing their diagnosis used to define things they are clearly not can crush their world. When you take mental illnesses lightly, you prove just how ill-equipped the world is to treat them like people. It’s crushing. You make them feel “crazy.” Which brings us to…

9. “So, you’re ‘crazy?’” (with a smile).

Yeah, that joke isn’t funny. Just don’t.

10. “If you have an eating disorder, then you should be really skinny right?”

That isn’t how eating disorders work.

11. “Sometimes, when I’m sad, I (insert coping method here).”

I’m not sad. My boyfriend did not just break up with me. I did not just fail a test. I cannot eat a bunch of ice cream or go pet a puppy and call it a day.

With an illness like depression or bipolar disorder, a person isn’t always “sad” because something unfortunate has happened to them. People can have depressive episodes for seemingly no reason other than their mental illness. Sometimes people can fall into long-term episodes, lasting days, months or even years. Thanks for the advice, but I don’t need to “go for a jog.”

Now, instead of ending and leaving you with a whole list of things you definitely can’t say, here are a couple of things you could try to say instead:

  1. I trust you.
  2. I support you.
  3. I’m here for you whenever you decide you need me.
  4. I value you in my life.
  5. I know I could never fully understand, but I’m always here to listen.

People with mental illness need to know they have you as a rock. They need to know you will always trust, support and value them. They don’t need to know you think they’re just “being dramatic.” The truth is, you might never understand. In fact, you probably won’t but that’s OK. You don’t need to. You just need to be there.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The Odyssey Online.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

 If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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Managing My Mental Illness Has Not Made Me Weak, but Stronger

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My mental illness gives me strength.

Let me be clear about one thing. When I say “my mental illness gives me strength,” what I mean is, the skills I have gained from years of managing a chronic illness have not made me weak, but stronger.

Gun violence has hit far too close to home lately. Most of my career has been spent on school campus; I was working in a San Bernardino County facility less than a mile away during the December 2 shootings. Finally, as a member of the LGBT community, the attack in Orlando hit me hard.

Because of my mental illness, I knew…

  • to stay calm while on lockdown, making sure we stayed safe and organized
  • that I needed to turn off all forms of media because I would fall down that rabbit hole too quickly
  • that all of my feelings are OK and normal

etc…

When a person who has dealt with chronic mental illness is put into a crisis, they can have unique tools to manage the situation.

Are we doing everything we can to make certain people with chronic mental illness can utilize these tools?  No, we are not, especially in the LGBT community.

Stigma around mental illness in the LGBT community is out of control. I have had coffee dates end with the slightest hint of my mental illness. I no longer worry about being fired for being gay (I work in California, one of the few places in the world I get the protection), but I have to worry about my mental illness being revealed.

When people do find out that I have chronic mental illness, they either run away or treat me like I’m breakable. I am, but my mental illness gives me strength.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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