by Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
Get therapy if you need it. As a psychologist, I want you to know that you might be surprised by who gets therapy – brilliant, high-powered, high achieving, successful people! They give themselves permission to get therapy, so that they can live fulfilling lives. Getting therapy is not a sign of weakness or sickness in the debased kind of way that so many people still conceive of it; instead, it is a sign of maturity, strength, and self-love. Doing something therapeutic for your mind is not any different from doing something therapeutic (like exercising and eating nutritiously) for your heart. Good mental health is just as important as good physical health. In the future we might even start getting an annual “psychological” just like one gets an annual physical examination. Sigmund Freud called his brand of psychotherapy “the talking cure” because just having a dispassionate professional to talk to, who doesn’t impose stifling judgment or sanction, can often be highly satisfying, liberating, and even life-sustaining. So, don’t be afraid to do it.
If you were somewhere suffering the signs and symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, and did nothing about it, people would consider that “crazy.” So, if you are suffering mightily, mentally or emotionally, why shouldn’t you be able to access help in that situation? Think about it. I’m a firm believer that mental health is like physical health. Just as your body can be compromised with a cold, or the flu, or something worse that requires medical attention, so, too, can the mind get compromised, breaking down your usual immunities for combating mental and emotional anguish and distress. Nowadays, people laughingly talk about needing “a mental health day” off from work, just as you would take a few days off if you were physically ill. That concept is always met with knowing laughter and affirmative nodding, because the truth is that people are really on to something even though they say it in jest. Sometimes we do need to take some time off or engage in a course of psychological treatment.
If we look at mental health on a continuum, at one end of the spectrum is excellent mental health and at the opposite end is poor mental health, but most of us lie somewhere in between those two opposite poles. Few people are completely at either end of the spectrum; that is, few people are in very poor mental health at any given time and few people are in the absolute best of mental health, no matter how they try to insist that they are. Often, they are just “fronting.” (I had to chuckle when one of my male students emphatically asserted in an undergraduate psychology class that, “Nobody is ever in the best mental health!”)
Again, most of us lie somewhere in between the two poles, but any one of us can shift – going in either direction – on any given day for a whole host of reasons. So, you’ll hear people say, “I should have just stayed in the bed today,” or “I knew when I woke up today that this would be a bad day.” Or people will say, “I’m going through it” meaning that for a couple of days or even weeks things just “aren’t right.” Or people will say, “I’ve been kinda depressed,” or “I’ve got the blues,” but no one really wants to entertain those kind of comments, because we resist the idea that something could be wrong mentally or emotionally, and, in any event, we rationalize that the person will be “okay.” Sometimes, we even, gratuitously, assert to our loved one, friend, or associate, “All, you’ll be alright.” We, mindlessly, say that to people all the time even when we have no idea about the depths of a person’s psychological pain. That is why we are so shocked when beautiful sisters, like the talented songstress, Phyllis Hyman, take their own lives, when they destroy their gifts by medicating their pain with alcohol or drugs like Whitney Houston, or when they burn through life fast like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.
The brain is an organ of the body and, just like any other organ, it can, to use the vernacular, “get out of whack.” Looking back on your legacy as a person of African descent, Ancient Africans believed that the mind, body, and spirit/soul should be healthy for one to have overall good health. Like a car, we should be firing on all pistons. So, if one thing – say the body – is out of whack – it can throw the whole system out of sync, thereby making the whole system unhealthy. If your mental state is not particularly healthy doesn’t that “piston” deserve attention?
As Black women, often no matter how smart, pretty, charismatic, and wonderful you are, your lives can still be stinted and circumscribed in so many ways, on so many levels, for so many reasons. Sure, we are socialized to “shrug” any and all problems “off,” to “just keep on keeping on,” and to “keep the faith,” but we are only human just like everyone else. So we need a new paradigm. In fact, your brilliance and dynamism, Black woman, seems to be more than this society wants in a Black woman. So, you end up internalizing your hurts and sorrows and chasing a cupcake, instead of a legitimate dream that could have and would have been fulfilled in a more just society. Then health and spirit, and even sanity, can become compromised because you know that you are not living your life as you had previously envisioned it, or as you deserve to live it.
Sometimes, having someone to talk to is a beautiful thing. It’s okay. There are places like the YMCA, county hospitals, and centers for women that provide good low-cost therapy. Get therapy, if you need it, because you are ill (e.g. clinically depressed or bipolar), grieving the death of a loved one, experiencing existential angst, having a hard time adjusting to a major, unsettling transition, having a difficult time managing intense emotions, dealing with an unaddressed longstanding trauma (e.g. childhood sexual abuse or adult rape), experiencing drug or alcohol addiction, diagnosed with a major chronic physical illness, suffering from a life altering permanent disability, or if you just need someone to talk to in order to sort out some things. Get what you need, without fear, shame, apology, or need for approbation, because, trust me, many of your White sisters have no problem accessing therapy, and I am talking about the well-educated, wealthy ones with high-powered careers. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t recognize your humanity, too, and get whatever you need to be happier and more successful in life – even if it’s therapy.
A Few Good Books to Read
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison,
An Unquiet Mind is an excellent memoir written by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a renowned clinical psychologist, scholar, and researcher as well as a phenomenal writer who suffers from Bipolar I (manic-depression) disorder. She is an unsparingly honest author who writes movingly and unflinchingly about her very serious illness and how she has managed to craft an enviable academic career and a life filled with love and beauty in spite of it.
Surviving the Silence, Black Women’s Stories of Rape by Charlotte Pierce-Baker,
Dr. Charlotte Pierce-Baker is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Vanderbilt University who has written courageously about devastating matters, including being brutally raped in her own home. Her faculty website page notes that: “Since the publication of her book, Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (W.W. Norton, September 1998), Professor Pierce-Baker has continued to travel and lecture on issues of black women and sexual assault. She has taken the topic of rape into the classroom with her course on women and trauma. Finding and creating a language is, for her, the first step in acknowledging and documenting the ‘colonization of the body of woman.’ Her book, the first of its kind, provides a forum for the heretofore-muted voices of African American women surviving the trauma of rape.”
Professor Pierce-Baker’s current book, This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son, is a poignant memoir about her very smart son who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while he was a young film student in graduate school at USC. She and her husband entered therapy to help them deal with all the things that were taking place in their world following their son’s diagnosis. Pierce-Baker’s writing makes an invaluable contribution to the sparse literature concerning Black families’ attempts to accept, address, and treat the mental illness of a family member.
I attended a lecture Dr. Pierce-Baker delivered at Northwestern University to promote this book. It was extraordinarily interesting and left the audience filled with compassion for and goodwill toward her obviously talented son whose trenchant poetry is interspersed throughout the book.
Willow Weep For Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Meri Danquah is a brilliant, highly engaging, Black female writer who immigrated to America from Ghana as a child. (She now spends most of her time back in Ghana.) Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Essence, and the Village Voice, among other publications. Ms. Danquah has crafted a beautifully written memoir about her own struggle with depression. (She also talks about how difficult it was for people around her to accept her illness – after all Black women are mythologized as, and supposed to be, “superwomen” who are impervious to pain and who are supposed to carry everybody else’s pain while denying or repressing their own!)
- African Americans and Therapy (psychologytoday.com)
- Gift Guide For Your Depressed Friends (thoughtcatalog.com)
- Snap Out of It Existence (ask.metafilter.com)