Racism made me anxious and depressed, but this doesn't have to be the case forever.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
June 02, 2020
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You could say I had gotten pretty good at navigating my blackness in a white supremacist world. I pushed myself to the edge of burnout to prove I was a “good” student, a “good” employee, a “good” member of society. I didn’t use my cultural slang, and I did my best to not be “threatening” in any way. But on the inside, depression and anxiety ate me up, fueled by years of being pushed to the edge by societal reactions to blackness. This past week, I was pushed to my limit.

Bottling my emotions about the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery—and many, many others before them—came to a head, leading me to a loud, painful wail. My boyfriend, who is of Mexican origin, held me as I sobbed, allowing me to feel all that I could without judgement. He admits to not understanding what life could ever be like for me as a black anxious woman, but promises to remain an ally in my daily fight against not only societal injustices, but the mental anguish it causes me, and many like me, daily.  

“The killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and all of those situations add to the daily stress of African-Americans—because even if it's not happening to you, you know that it could, or to someone you care about, in a way that white Americans don't have to deal with,” psychologist Beverly Tatum, PhD, former president emerita of Spelman College and race relations expert, tells Health. “Concern for your own safety is a major source of stress. Mental stress impacts physical well-being." If you are under stress or anxious, the impact on your physical health will lead to a shorter life expectancy, she adds.

As a whole, the average life expectancy for African Americans is 75.2 years, compared to 78.9 years for white Americans. Given that African Americans suffer from higher rates of pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease (and now are dying disproportionately from the COVID-19 outbreak), adding physiological stress as a factor in our shortened lifespan makes knowing where those three extra years went all the bleaker. 

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As a black woman, concerns for my own safety vary from minimizing innocent actions that others may take as threatening to avoiding any and all contact with law enforcement that could lead to my undue arrest, or even worse—my own death. This hypervigilance has been branded on my psyche, manifesting itself in ways that harm my quality of sleep and compel me to avoid social interactions with those I may not know. It’s not farfetched to say that white supremacy has harmed my mental health in ways that I’m forced to live with for the rest of my life, as long as racism exists. If racism doesn’t kill me directly, it can indirectly. 

LaToya Gaines, a New York-based psychologist, highlights hypervigilance as a common symptom of not only race-based trauma, but also post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which tends to go underdiagnosed in African Americans. In 2006, The National Comorbidity Survey-Replication (NCS-R) and the National Survey of American Life (NSAL) found that nearly 1 in 10 African Americans have PTSD, and researchers suggest that the number could be even higher due to the lack of diagnosis.

“A lot of times when people of color seek out trauma treatment, it's not tailored to their needs because of a lack of relevant cultural elements to help unpack the trauma,” Gaines tells Health. “A number of people seek out a therapist of color, because it's important for them to feel connected in that way to understand the nature of their identity and the importance of cultivating these elements into the treatment.”

Since I began therapy in 2018, I’ve only seen therapists of color, which, as  Gaines says, has been able to help me unpack my personal traumas related to race and feel validated in my experiences. This hasn’t made my therapy experience perfect, but it has provided the much-needed context to survive and live in a world where I’m experiencing race-based trauma on a near daily basis. I can openly discuss the pains I’ve experienced in my daily interactions with white supremacy candidly and without judgment, without feeling the need to safeguard the emotions of my therapist as I metaphorically bleed on their hands. 

Every psychologist I’ve spoken to is extremely vocal about African Americans taking advantage of therapy in these trying times. While therapy in itself can be rewarding for everyone, it is often expensive and difficult to approach without health insurance. So here's a list of mental health resources they've recommended to me, and some that I’ve personally utilized, for African Americans to look into as we all undergo this collective trauma.

1. Therapy For Black Girls

Therapy For Black Girls is a podcast, community, and therapist directory started by Joy Harden Bradford, a black psychologist, who hoped to bridge the gap between black women and therapy. If not for her podcast, I don’t think I would have approached therapy at all. Thanks to her podcast and directory, it’s become incredibly easy to find a culturally informed therapist while discussing mental health issues that are often unique to black women—like racism in the workplace and dealing with race-informed misogyny.  

2. Therapy For Black Men

Similarly to Therapy For Black Girls, Therapy For Black Men is aimed at helping black men find a therapist who is informed about the unique mental health issues that black men face. With black men four times more likely to commit suicide than black women, breaking the stigma against seeking mental health treatment is especially pertinent. Therapy For Black Men is looking to be a resource in that. 

3. Melanin & Mental Health

Melanin & Mental Health was founded by two black women therapists to promote mental and emotional healing in black and Latinx communities through multi-city events, a therapist directory, and  a podcast. The organization wants to bridge the gap between black and brown identities and mental health treatment through destigmatization and building community.

4. Open Path Collective

Open Path Collective, while not aimed specifically at people of color, helps to ease the financial burden that often comes with therapy. With sliding scale costs, Open Path Collective seeks to be a safe space for marginalized identities to receive therapy. (Minorities, especially African Americans, are less likely to have health insurance.) If the cost of therapy is intimidating, this is a great place to start. 

5. Ethel's Club

Ethel’s Club is a social and wellness club aimed at people of color. As a founding member, I attended many events designed to uplift community, creativity, and health among people of color. Now that the physical clubhouse has closed due to the pandemic, the club has shifted to providing virtual wellness events to members, and even more recently, free mental health resources to non-members. 

Aside from therapy, many people are channeling their energy into protesting for change, and when done with a specific political goal in mind, protests can be effective. As someone who is choosing not to physically protest for personal reasons, I’ve decided instead to solicit donations for anti-racist organizations, sign petitions calling for racial justice, and most importantly, practice self-care where it’s often difficult to do so. 

“As black people, especially black women, we feel like taking care of ourselves and focusing on ourselves as selfish,” Amber Thornton, a DC-based psychologist and wellness consultant, tells Health. “When things like this are happening, we feel like that's not doing enough, but that is plenty. Anti-racist activist Audre Lorde said this a long time ago: ‘Self-care is a form of political warfare.’ When you live in a society where your life isn't valued, valuing your life extensively and significantly is advocacy and activism.”

Lately, self-care for me has meant practicing vulnerability—not being afraid to tell my peers, especially my white ones, when I need help or time for myself. It’s difficult to practice when my anxiety and hypervigilance has pushed me to burn myself out to keep up the image of the “good” black person. Yet I’m constantly learning that ending racism simply isn’t my cross to bear. It’s a collective effort that starts with the privileged majority. 

Isolated from the physical world by coronavirus and yet constantly in tune digitally due to the worldwide traumas that afflict others of African descent, my one hope of escaping racism was extremely short-lived. Yet another hope was born: that those in my community can use quarantine and recent world events as an opportunity to discuss how racism has shaped our mental health individually and collectively. Racism may never go away, but the best we can do is look after each other while we fight the good fight.

As the late poet Maya Angelou wrote: “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear / I rise / Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear / I rise / Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise.”

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