‘A Million Little Things’ powerfully reflects the truth of many Black folk’s mental health struggle
The legacies of racism and slavery have been shown to have a significant impact on mental health in the Black community.
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Olivia Burke
The recently ended first season of the ABC drama A Million Little Things carried an incredible amount of significance to me as a young Black woman who struggles with my mental health. I have dealt with depression and anxiety since high school, going from therapist to therapist until I finally found one that worked for me. That therapist helped me come to terms with the fact that medication would be a necessary step, which was literally a hard pill to swallow. I had yet to see an accurate portrayal of a story like mine, until I came across this show.
The show follows a group of friends who met through their relationship with the main character, Jon Dixon, who commits suicide during the pilot episode, while putting particular emphasis on the status of mental health in the Black community. The beginning of the season introduces us to the Black character Rome Howard as he struggles through a suicide attempt. Over the course of the season, we are able to see the journey that Howard takes to get to a good place in terms of his mental health.
In the beginning of the season, Howard struggles to come to terms with his depression diagnosis. We watch as he struggles through this, finds therapy and begins a prescription. At the end of the season, we see Howard in a much more emotionally stable state, taking his medication regularly with a clearer vision of what he wants out of both his life and his career.
A Million Little Things is probably the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen of what it is like to not only accept the fact that you have a mental illness as a person of color, but to also go about getting treatment and telling one’s family about it.
We see more than just Rome lying in bed contemplating life. We see how taxing going about his everyday routine is while also struggling with his mental health. Depression is more than just struggling to get out of bed. It is having the feeling of having a weight on your shoulders all day, regardless of what is going on. We hear this stated by Howard in episode three, during an argument about a conflict between the group of friends. One of the characters, Gary, asks if they are supposed to act like the conflict did not happen and simply go through the day. Rome explains that this is what life feels like to him everyday.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 5 to 10 percent of Black men are reported to deal with depression. Yet, there is little evidence of these men actually making use of mental health services. This is mainly because of the stigma that surrounds mental health in the Black community, as well as the structural racism that exists in medical professionals.
A study cited by Mental Health America showed evidence of the fact that Black men in particular are concerned about stigma. The same research has also indicated that many Black people believe that they would be considered to be “crazy” in their social circles for having mild depression or anxiety. Some also believed that discussions about mental health issues would not be appropriate even among their family members.
This issue of having the stigma amongst family is covered in episode nine of A Million Little Things. Rome’s father finds his medication in his bathroom when helping him fix his sink. This leads to a difficult discussion about the state of Rome’s mental health, and why he feels the need to use medication to help himself cope with his depression. The conversation ended with his father placing a large amount of judgement on him after his decision to open up about his struggles with his mental health. Unfortunately, this scene is one that is all too familiar to many of us.
Of course, structural racism also ties into why there is a lack of treatment and assistance given to Black people who struggle with these issues. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, people of color are more likely to “be chronically impaired given a mental health diagnosis.” Two key factors that were shown to contribute to this were bias and racism.
The legacies of racism and slavery have been shown to have a significant impact on mental health in the Black community. During the times of colonialism and psychiatry, racism was being integrated into a field of psychiatry that was still developing. In the 19th century, many psychiatrists accepted the idea that Black people were intellectually inferior. To them, this meant that they had smaller brains and a natural instinct for labor. In turn, Black people who participated in abolitionist movements were often labeled as schizophrenic by mental health professionals. Ideas and practices like such still exist in the world of medical practitioners today.
All of these factors contribute to why Black people are seen to have higher rates of depression, but lower rates of treatment, in comparison to white Americans. Black people are also known to be less likely to get office-based counseling for psychological symptoms. We are, however, more likely to be seen in emergency rooms as a result of these psychological stressors.
While the date for the season 2 premiere of A Million Little Things has yet to be set, there is much anticipation about how it will continue the conversation about Black people and mental health. I am hopeful that our realities will get more of the depth they deserve.
Olivia Burke is a freelance writer who has written about everything from social issues to how to be single on Valentine’s Day. She has written for a wide variety of publications including Bustle, Rewire, and The Tempest. When she isn’t working on a new article, she is either ordering Chipotle on Postmates or catching up on This Is Us on Hulu.