Mental Health Awareness Month shouldn’t be the only time I can talk openly about my mental health
Stigmas still prevent me and some others from discussing trauma and mental health.
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 Latonya Pennington
It is once again Mental Health Awareness Month and I’m starting to hate it. Not only does this month tend to make mental health conversations seem worthy of importance during only one month out of the year, but certain conversations about recovering from mental illness also tend to be prioritized over stories of struggle, isolation, and hopelessness.
Another problematic aspect is how Black people and other marginalized identities have our own mental health awareness month in July called Minority Mental Health Awareness month. On the one hand, it allows those overlooked by white cis heteronormative neurotypical/able bodied narratives of mental illness to have a voice and share resources. On the other hand, it also implies that our mental health conversations don’t deserve as much attention as the default narratives do while only allowing a certain amount of time for both of these conversations to occur.
It is crucial that we not only prioritize mental health conversations better, but also change the way that we discuss mental health so no one feels that they have to deal with mental illness alone.
One reason that I’ve gotten used to suffering in silence is due to my multi-racial upbringing. As the child of a Vietnamese mom and a Black dad, I was discouraged by both parents from expressing painful emotions and experiences. My mother was emotionally abusive to the point that I never felt it was okay to cry or make the smallest of mistakes. With every mistake I made, I was screamed at, called “st*pid” and “lazy” in a thousand ways, and yelled at even more for crying. As a result, I felt like I had to earn other people’s approval by always being bubbly even when I was hurting.
My dad was emotionally absent in that he spent more time talking on the phone to other people than to me. When he wasn’t talking on the phone, he was asleep during the day in order to rest for his night job. On the rare occasions we could talk, he made me feel like I was either too sensitive or that I had to already have the answer to any given question. Although he did try to stand up to my mom’s emotional abuse when I was younger, he started telling me to just tune it out as I got older.
Both of my parents painful lessons are the result of what they were taught growing up as an African American man and a Southeast Asian woman. With my Dad, toxic masculinity resulted in him learning to either suppress vulnerability and negative emotions or project it onto others. Similarly, my mom was taught that strong emotions made you weak and that emotional suppression made you seem more appealing.
In turn, both variations of emotional suppression are the result of living in a white supremacist patriarchal society, which puts pressure on people of color to bottle up our negative emotions and experiences in order to not be seen as a threat to white people. As a result of this pressure, people of color have learned to police ourselves and each other through methods such as abuse and respectability politics. When it manifests as abuse, this creates a cycle of intergenerational trauma that is sometimes never addressed.
On top of being taught to suffer in silence by my parents, school bullying also reinforced this lesson. Teachers would either not notice or make excuses when kids called me “ret*rded” for a bad habit of dragging my feet. In seventh grade, I worked up the courage to tell one of the teachers about how a classmate they wanted me to work with picked on me. I was told, “Oh come on, not everyone is going to like you!” From that moment on, I decided not to tell anyone about being bullied, even as it started to affect my mental health and self-worth.
In high school, there came a breaking point when I was dealing with emotional abuse at home, as well as academic pressure and school bullying. The school bullying was especially painful because it was the result of not fitting preconceived notions of Blackness. A deep shame developed due to being unable to reconcile parts of my identity with my Blackness.
Soon, I lost interest in school to the point where my grades dropped from A’s and B’s to B’s and C’s. I also caught myself imagining what it would be like if I jumped off the roof of my school. Since I often read teen fiction for pleasure, I was able to assess myself with depression. But because almost all the characters I read about who had depression were white, I didn’t feel like my depression would be taken seriously.
As a result of this painful time, I slowly started to physically isolate myself from others while cultivating a life online. Eventually, this allowed me to safely explore parts of myself I had suppressed, especially my gender identity and orientation. Online magazines and spaces such as Afropunk and Black Girl Dangerous gave me a place to explore interests such as sci-fi, fantasy and music through a Black queer lens. And the more I discovered about myself, the more I learned how my identities were hated or overlooked.
After a harrowing Thanksgiving in 2018, I felt more isolated and invisible than ever. While eating with my brother’s in-laws, one of them started talking about how bisexual actress Michelle Rodriguez was “a floater” who needed to “pick a side.” Since I wasn’t out to my brother or his family, I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was disassociate from the discomfort and shame I felt as I was forced to make small talk. It would be two months of depression before I came to terms with the incident by expressing my feelings through poetry.
This incident was so painful because it felt like the worst embodiment of the pain I’ve been feeling for years. Always “different,” always feeling out of place. Being forced to choose between my race and my other identities and hiding part of my life from my family. Feeling like I can’t make friends because I’ll have to earn their approval and hide my pain to avoid being further hurt and traumatized. Most important is being unable effectively manage mental health due to stigma and inaccessibility.
For me, one of my biggest barriers to mental health management is the cost of healthcare and insurance. Low income prevents me from being able to afford any therapy or receive a professional diagnosis. Another barrier is how I rarely see mental health conversations address emotional abuse and how some Black people use religion to just pray mental illness away. I once tried to talk to my sister about my depression and she gave me a religious pamphlet that called depression a sin. Meanwhile, emotional abuse is often dismissed as “tough love” or something that only exists in romantic relationships. All I can do to manage my mental health alone is to use outlets such as music, poetry, video games, and online forums.
I don’t want to suffer in silence, but I prefer to do this than have my trauma and experiences minimized. Even with two Mental Health Awareness Months, stigmas still prevent me and some others from discussing trauma and mental health. It would help people like me to change how we talk about mental health in our personal and professional lives, and to carry on the discussions year-round.
Latonya Pennington is a freelance pop culture critic and poet. Their criticism can be found online at Syfy Wire, Brain Mills Press, and Black Sci-fi. Their poetry has been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, EFNIKS magazine, and Argot magazine among others.