Religion, Health, And Why "Depression" Is Such A Taboo In The Black Community

Julia Forsman

My brother is five years older than me, but he was a special needs child, due to a learning disability and head trauma he experienced during an accident as an infant. Despite our age difference, I've always treated him more like my younger brother.

He participated in special classes all throughout grade school, and required plenty of extra care, as most special needs children do. My mom did the very best she could, juggling meeting his needs while shuffling me my extensive extra curricular activities schedule as a single parent. But of course, there were things she didn't know.

I suffered with depression throughout my childhood and it wasn't something my mom recognized or even knew how to deal with, even though the signs were there. I had frequent crying outbursts, was routinely withdrawn, and suffered more anxiety attacks than I could ever count. My mom witnessed all of this, but assumed it was because I was merely a "sensitive child" with "extreme emotions."

Managing my brother's regular medications, doctor's appointments, special needs classes, and addiction to television weighed a lot on my mom, but she handled it with a lot of structure in our Christian household. What she couldn't seem to handle, however, was me.

Today, my mom still reminisces on what a "mean child" I was since, to her, any struggles I had back then are seemingly over. It's something she smiles about in a thank-God-that's-over-and-we-can-laugh-about-it kind of way.

What she didn't understand back then, however, was that I was hurting. Whatever pain she did see in me, since she was a minister, she leaned toward God and encouraged me to pray my way out of it.

And even though I tried, it didn't always work.

It's a cultural thing for black families to lean heavily on religion above other means of support.

July is National Minority Mental Heath Awareness month, which has inspired me to start thinking more about how black people engage in mental health conversations.

A 2009 study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 87 percent of African Americans described themselves as belonging to one religious group or another. Seventy-nine percent of the individuals surveyed also described religion as being an important part of their lives.

Many black people identify with some denomination of Christianity, including prominent black leaders. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a reverend in Atlanta, Georgia.

Church was where much of the Civil Rights Movement was planned and organized. Many consider it a place of refuge and peace, which is part of why there was so much outrage over the 2015 Charleston shootings, which took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

Black people love our religion and church because sometimes faith feels like all we have to lean on in a world run by systematic racism and discrimination and pain.

Still, sometimes black culture leans on religion so much THAT we let it replace other necessary means of mental health care.

Instead of acknowledging what we go through, we allow our religion to lead us to bite our tongues for fear of "speaking bad things into existence," as my mother would tell me when she paraphrased from the Bible.

Except bad things were already in existence, and I needed to acknowledge them with more than just prayer.

Prayer became a temporary fix that only sent me spiraling down even further when it didn't cough up results I was hoping for. I wanted some sort of reprieve from the darkness that clouded my mind and rushed me to unexplainable tears.

Comfort came from prayer, but when it left, the cloud returned and my mom had no clue how to interpret my tears most of the time. As a child, I remember she once caught me sobbing and asked, "Do you even know why you're crying?"

Her question felt indignant and dismissive, like she already knew my answer would be, "Nope, I don't know."

As an adult, I remember a similar conversation taking placE; me in tears... again. "Marquaysa, crying doesn't help," my mom said slowly and seriously as she stood in the door frame of my bedroom.

I felt entirely invisible, even though she was looking right at me.

Black families don't always know how to recognize depression.

This isn't stereotyping; it's real.

Black families have historically experienced so much oppression, dating as far back as slavery, and we've been taught to have "thick skin" and, of course, to "lean on the good Lord" as a means of survival. Masking our true feelings is often treated as a defense mechanism.

Over a decade later, I know my mom was so baffled by where I was emotionally at such a young age that she could only write it off as an "immature mismanagement" of emotions. But our household was a war zone, thanks to my parents' constant bickering, which ultimately led to their much-needed divorce. My mother was also trying to maintain her self-care in the process of learning how to address issues within our family.

All that contributed to my negative mental-health status, but she couldn't see it since she had so many other things going on. I couldn't communicate it to her, because I was young and I felt she had already painted me as a "crier" for "no reason."

I didn't want to be labeled like that, so I tried to be "strong." Not talking about what bothered me became how I handled everything. The suppression, of course, bubbled up, and came out most often in the form of anger.

We never even said the word "depression" in our house, unless we were calling it a "spirit" and praying against it. There was no diagnosis or even therapy, unless you count the family mediation sessions with my mom's pastor friends, who were just as old school and religious as she.

The funny part is, my mom worked as a counselor for other youth with behavioral problems. She never once suggested that I might need counseling, too. I didn't have serious behavioral problems that led to run-ins with the law or a learning disability from a physical childhood trauma, so it seemed I didn't qualify.

Yet I needed it.

Black people don't talk about mental health enough.

Black women are statistically the most under-treated for depression, even though we are at the greatest risk of suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD), according to HuffPost.

Part of stems from disparities in healthcare and treatment based on race, but the other part is how we use the wrong Band-Aids to fix our problems — that is, if we acknowledge them at all.

It's a taboo subject. Religion is often seen as the salve that is supposed to fix everything. Visiting a therapist is for "crazy" people, according to stereotypes affecting all cultures and races. And, in my experience, talking to people about your problems can sometimes be considered "complaining."

Black people are already forced to survive racism and discrimination on a daily basis, and so naturally, we're often weary of having to admit to additional mental health struggles.

My brother had a learning disability no one could deny because it affected how he developed behaviorally in comparison to other people his age. He began receiving treatment before he even learned to walk. My needs, however, weren't obvious or even visible. You couldn't tell just by looking at me. It made communicating my needs that much harder.

I was 25 when I first sat down in a therapist's chair. Thankfully, I'm on a journey to healing and processing my feelings so much better than I was when I was younger. I was even able to tell my mom all about it, and instead of questioning the validity of my experience, she supported my decision.

I just hope there are other little black girls out there who can get to this place so much earlier.