Black mental health care needs to involve more than therapy
I have found a more holistic approach including creative expression, medication and certain lifestyle changes to have the greatest effect.
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 Antoine Hayes
Mental health is important to every person’s overall well-being. One out of four people worldwide (WHO) and one in five adults in the US will experience mental health problems (NAMI). Mental illness effects a person’s sense of self, ability to work and their capacity to form and maintain meaningful relationships.
Because of discrimination, negative stigma, lack of access, affordability and awareness, millions of people living with mental health issues do not receive adequate or the proper treatment.
I have spent over 25 years getting treatment for my mental health conditions (I am diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder), and I advocate that others seek mental health treatment as well. But from my varied and years of experience, I realized that not every approach is beneficial to the recipient.
Our discussions around mental health and its treatment needs to be more nuanced than “you need to go to therapy.” Throughout my experiences, I have found a more holistic approach including creative expression, medication and certain lifestyle changes to have the greatest positive effect on my condition, and could be beneficial to you to.
Therapy for me started when I was around 8 years old or so. Since then, I’ve went through a number of therapists, definitely over a dozen, that did not leave a positive impression. Most of my therapists were white and did not understand the specific cultural trauma as a growing Black boy and then as a Black man.
RELATED: For Black people who avoid mental health treatment for reasons other than our “culture” or fear of malpractice
Add on to that I’m not big into talking about myself, and it is clear why sitting down with a stranger to talk about my feelings did not work well for me. But I soon discovered a kind of therapy that I responded to: Art therapy. It is easier for me to express myself through writing or creating visual art than talking.
Therapy doesn’t have to be similar to how it’s portrayed on TV, with a bespectacled professional asking you, “So, tell me about your mother,” while you lay on a couch. Therapy can be creative expression; and you don’t even need a therapist present to write or draw your feelings.
Medication and I have a tumultuous relationship. As an adolescent it was forced upon me by psychiatrists, and that negative experience stuck with me into adulthood. At that time, I experienced side effects such as sluggishness and the adults in my life ignored my complaints.
When I became an adult myself, I was over pills I stopped taking medication for over 15 years. Family and friends heralded me as a hero—I had beaten mental illness! I was cured! But life doesn’t work like that. My symptoms worsened year by year, and I wound up turning to alcohol to self-medicate.
That only quickened my downward spiral; I was constantly agitated and lashing out at the people closest to me. I walked out of jobs in explosive tirades. I entered into severe depressive moments that lasted months. There were times I tried to get back on medication, but it didn’t work because the psychologists talked over me and ignored my concerns about side effects.
Recently I’ve begun using medication again, an anti-depressant prescribed to me by my primary care doctor. This was only possible after I worked through my past traumatic experiences with medication and developed realistic expectations regarding the purpose of medication through meditation.
I intentionally reminded myself that I’m not a failure for taking medication, and accepted that pills aren’t going to take away the depression completely. And now my bouts with depression are not as severe or as long as they were when I wasn’t on medication.
RELATED: The anti-Black history behind anxiety in our community, and 3 ways to tackle it
Any sort of big lifestyle change is going to take time to implement, and you’re going to face resistance—often from yourself. I included support and knowledge into this heading because for me they are all intertwined with lifestyle changes. Removing yourself from non-supportive people is a lifestyle change; studying on your condition and learning your triggers and cycles and making necessary adjustments to minimize their effects are lifestyle changes.
Thankfully, I have had psychologists and counselors that provided me with illuminating literature about my condition. Knowing what’s going on in my brain has been incredibly helpful in creating comprehensive treatment plans that include art therapy, meditation, breathing exercises and yoga.
It took me a while to understand that my path would not be the same as the “standard” adult life in the US. Societal and familial pressure pushed me to work full-time jobs, and the added stress worsened my depression. I have found part-time work in an environment that isn’t hectic or demanding, and where I don’t take my work home with me, works best. I surround myself with supportive friends and have distanced myself from people who were not. It was difficult to end some of those relationships that were years old, but I learned to value my health more than their friendship.
Mental health is important and should be taken seriously—and intentionally. There isn’t a one-size fits all approach to it. Therapy or medication or yoga alone might not be sufficient treatment. In fact, they probably aren’t going to provide the best results working alone. Mental health needs a holistic approach to be properly treated.
And it’s not going to happen overnight; you might have to wait years to find the professionals and support group that you need to heal. That sucks to hear but it’s true. And if a treatment works at one point, it might not work at later times. It’s best to leep an open and fluid mind, as your treatment plan will change and evolve as you grow. I hope my personal story helps and encourages you on your journey to treatment and recovery. You can do this!
Antoine Hayes is a father, husband, writer and life-long lover of books. He has had over 20 years receiving treatment for mental health. He currently resides in Maryland.