Black History Month and Mental Health:
Far More Encompassing than 28 Days
When asked to write an op-ed, I struggled. What could I write that would be received, resonate, and make water the readers’ inquisitive and eager salivary glands? After all, we know that February is Black History Month. An extension of Black History Week, Black History Month has been a thing since 1976. Though not legalized in the United States until Congress passed a law recognizing the month in 1996, the concept was conceived, initiated, and legitimized in 1926 by scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
Mental health, in the United States, is a part of the history of Black people and, in general, people of color. Starting with the diaspora, our history and relationship with mental health has been distorted by systems built to traumatize, marginalize, and illegitimize our communities physically, spiritually, and, yes, mentally and emotionally. In 1851, physician Samuel Cartwright’s drapetomania declared slaves mentally ill for running away from slave masters and abhorring the conditions of plantation life. In other words, if a slave was tired of being beaten, raped, watching family members being sold to the highest bidder, or working from sun up to sun down with the threat of punishment if deemed not working hard enough, AND had the audacity to feel they would be better off taking their chances running away – according to Dr. Cartwright, said slave was suffering from mental illness. In 1946, the American Psychological Association named physician and segregationist Dr. Henry Garrett president. It has only been 63 years since his declaration that Blacks are “intellectually inferior” to Whites was published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, a peer-reviewed academic journal. Further, African-American communities have historically been more likely to be harmed and targeted by entities that center profit, power, control, exploitation, oppression, violence, and trauma via eugenics, population control, desirability, and ableism – which might explain why a 2020 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national survey found that, in comparison to 51% of their White counterparts, only 37% of African-American adults pursued mental health treatment, despite being 20% more likely to experience a mental health condition. These systems have lended to scamming our communities into believing that mental illness is synonymous with mental health and is our life’s portion. In many instances, these systems have managed to safeguard illness within African-American and other marginalized communities by robbing them of their dignity, value, resources, agency, livelihood, and most importantly…their self-worth.
The self holds our awareness for how we exist in relation to the world. We are always in relationship and our self-worth, or our internal sense of being good and worthy enough of love and belonging from others, informs how we navigate relationships with the world as well as with ourselves. Just as we have relationships with our physical health, spiritual health, financial health, and other dimensions of self, we also hold a relationship with our mental health. Mental health is our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Life is going to “life” and our mental health allows us to take pleasure and satisfaction, but also recover when life does not go as planned or expected.
Though Black History Month occurs only one month out of the year, I suspect that Dr. Woodson meant for the occasion to be a year-round commemorative, centering the achievements and contributions of African-Americans; centering the legitimization of African-Americans; and centering the affirming, or that which is valid and true, of African-Americans. What we know to be valid and true is that, despite the woundedness our communities have incurred as a result of historical and contemporary systemic disenfranchisement, we have a right to heal. We have a right to be whole. We have a right to pleasure, satisfaction, and joy. We have a right to ethical and culturally relevant care.
There is still progress to be made to decrease the stigma of seeking mental health care among African-American and marginalized communities. There is also still work to be done to provide greater access to ethical care that centers cultural humility. But make no mistake. Progress has been and is continuing to be made. During the 1980s, Dr. Claude Steele revolutionized the social psychology field with development of Self-Affirmation Theory. An African-American social psychologist, Dr. Steele’s theory shows evidence that self-affirmation helps individuals cope with threats to one’s self-concept and is beneficial in improving health and adaptive functioning. In 2021, that American Psychological Association issued an apology, in the spirit of healing and reconciliation, “for promoting, perpetuating, and failing to challenge racism, and the harms that have been inflicted on communities of color as a result.” Further, there are numerous licensed mental health clinicians whose work centers cultural humility. Located across the United States, many of these clinicians are unsung, yet dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable in their communities: Ms. LaShaan Depina, LMHC (New Bedford, Massachusetts), Dr. Lourdes Follins, LCSW-R (Brooklyn, New York), Rev. Dr. Larry Evans, LPC (Savannah, Georgia), and clinical health psychologist, Dr. Tonette Robinson (Marietta, Georgia), to name a few. Through my own work, I have taken the principles of Steele’s Self-Affirmation Theory to develop the Self-SOULstice Model of Affirmation, which moves clients to 1) explore their core self and sense of individuality; 2) restore the core self from woundedness to develop a more genuine view of self, as well as healthier responses to internal and external messages that pose threats to their self-concept and self-worth; 3) accept self unconditionally and shift from self-worth protection to self-worth enhancement; and 4) extend outward their affirmed self to confirm and support others in their present self-concept. This model is put to practical use through the Emotional Lifeline and Mapping Journal, also developed by me. The journal promotes the agency to 1) identify and acknowledge emotions; 2) give voice to our emotions; 3) learn how our bodies conspire with our emotional and physical well-being; and 4) anchor the connection between the cause of our emotions and the meaning that we attach to the cause. The journal is also a call to affirm self, affirm others, and nurture self to bring healing to self and one’s community.
We are good and worthy enough of love and belonging in our relationship with ourselves – individually, collectively, and the world. Yes, February is Black History Month. But the achievements and contributions of African-Americans is far more encompassing than 28 days (2024 is a leap year and we have the “privilege” of an extra day). Thus, Black History Month is a time for African-Americans to be deliberately mindful about pursuing their healing and self-affirmation every day of every month of the year, whether physical, financial, spiritual, or otherwise. Moreover, we must continue to stop buying into the stigma of mental illness and, instead, invest in our mental and emotional health.