Black Lives Matter. Black Mental Health Matters.

August 14, 2020

Elissa Lee, 24, spent her childhood in Austin, Texas, her adolescence in Taiwan, and her college years at UC Berkeley. She has founded initiatives around storytelling and mental health and arts education. Previously, she worked at Too Small to Fail, coordinating a national campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development in children. Elissa currently resides in sunny LA, pursuing a degree in occupational therapy and researching chronic conditions in medically underserved populations. She is passionate about increasing access to healthcare systems and creating a kinder world through the written word.

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Earlier this year, we hosted a series of community conversations on mental health awareness in different communities. Mitu Yilma was joined by notOK app co-founders Hannah and Charlie, Refinery29 Unbothered’s Laurise McMillian, producer and performer Kalen Allen, and TalkSpace therapist Dr. Reshawna Chapple to discuss mental health awareness in the Black community. Amongst many other topics, the panel discussed personal experiences with mental health, coping strategies, Black joy, resources, and what gives them hope.

Here are some highlights from the conversation: 

On experiences of mental health in the Black community: 
Hannah: Black mental health to me means shining a light on an underserved group of people when it comes to mental health and health in general.

Charlie: Black mental health to me is my mental health, Black mental health to me is being unafraid of being who I am and not letting anyone tell me no with my mental health.

Kalen: Black mental health to me is unpacking generational traumas and being self-aware and being able to look at ourselves in the mirror to know the things that we need to heal.

Dr. Chapple: What Black mental health means to me is just the ability to be able to understand that we all need healthcare, we all need to feel safe, heard, and thinking about ways in which dealing with racial struggles everyday impact our lives, being able to be okay saying that we’re not okay.

Laurise: Black mental health is recognizing or putting a name to traumas or issues or you know those things that your mom and your auntie will say ‘Oh, that’s just how they are, or oh, that’s fine’ when it’s really not. It’s acknowledging those things that that you can always kind of felt and you’ve always kind of known just wasn’t truly right and addressing them and like serving yourself to face them. 

Mitu: It’s hard to talk about Black mental health without acknowledging our lived stressors, as part of everyday life, due to structural racism and white supremacy. Black folks make up 13% of the population yet represent 27% of COVID-19 cases and 20% of COVID related deaths, Black adults are 20% more likely to report than white adults that are experiencing serious psychological distress and between 1991 and 2017, the rate of Black adolescent suicide attempts increased by 73% while that rate actually decreased for other ethnic groups. On a personal note, my friends are having babies now they’re scared for their infants’ lives. My partner loves to run, and I get scared, every time he leaves our home, and it’s like I hold my breath, until he comes back, and even in the day to day I think we can all relate, we have these conversations and interactions where you go, ‘Did that person just say that to me like because I’m Black or because I’m a Black woman, or are they just having an off day?’ and that double and triple time thinking is exhausting, and I’m an adult, who in her professional capacity has access to mental health resources, every single day. 

On coping strategies during this time: 
Mitu: Quinta Brunson had a tweet that went viral because of its relatability. She wrote: ‘Being Black is having a good day and then seeing another Black person was killed for no reason. Then you have to think about/talk about that all day. Or don’t and numb yourself. It’s a constant emotional war. Meanwhile you still need to work and worry about everything else.’ We’re at home, we’re surviving a pandemic, we’re contending with Black suffering – videos of that, even, on our phones. How are you coping? 

Dr. Chapple: First of all, we have to look at the ways in which our society has set up to get us to ignore, especially Black people, our mental health. We are told that you know we’re okay. A lot of times when we’re growing up, if we cry, particularly if you’re a male, you’re told that you’re fine, don’t worry about it, you need to be tough. As Black people, we’re also told that we have to work twice as hard and we know that that is the reality of the situation. But what ends up happening is for us, we end up carrying this stigma on one hand and then on the other hand, having these feelings that we have to always look and be okay. I’m a college professor and one of the main things that I have to teach is the difference between a white person who is depressed versus a Black person who is depressed, because a Black woman who is depressed is dressed to the nines when she comes to her appointment. Her hair, her makeup, her clothes —  she is flawless, because we are told that we cannot look disheveled, we can’t come into a situation looking like we’re on welfare or something like that, because we immediately get judged. So, the one thing that we need to know as Black people is that it’s okay not being okay, that we deserve to practice self-care, we need to have self-compassion, and we need to recognize when we need a break. If we need to call the timeout, we absolutely get to call a timeout, because, uncles, cousins, Nana, job, school — all that can wait for a minute, because if we are completely rundown, then who’s going to do it?

Laurise: So, I’ll be super honest. I work in media and journalism so this comes with the job, it comes with the territory. As a Black woman, it’s really hard to not be able to turn off the news because you are the news, you can’t really tune it out and it’s my duty to make sure that all 152K of our audience is getting what they need from me because that’s what I signed up to do. And so, earlier this week it was even before this happened, it was just the Amy Cooper situation — with the video of the woman in Central Park who was like ‘I’m going to tell the police the Black guy is threatening my life’? And my partner and I had already been kind of feeling like, ‘Well like I don’t feel like myself, I miss going to the office, I miss the reasons why I moved to New York City in the first place’, and then to have that happened so close to home, and so we’re like we need to go back to the DMV for a bit and right when this happened, I already had like a trip planned home to be here now with my family and it could not have come at a better time. I think for me, being able to say you know what I have this panel with the Born This Way Foundation that I’m excited to speak about and share my feelings… And I straight up canceled my meetings for today, and I was like this is the one thing that I’m not going to cancel because I want to do this in my spirit is calling me to do this but I’m straight up was just like ‘No, like I’m not going, I’m not doing this brainstorm, I’m not doing that.’ And I’m really fortunate to have a work environment that supports that and people around me in the office who get that and I think that for me being somebody who works around the clock, feeling like okay, yes I know that I have to always be on, or I’m going to take this hour of my time and watch a movie with my little sister, because I need that to be able to keep doing the work I’m doing.

Charlie: Well, coping with this is horrifying especially being my age, I’m 15, I’m a freshman in high school. This wasn’t really like a really big year for me but it was the first year of high school and pandemic struck, and I’m like ‘Wow, it can’t get worse’, and then murder hornets and I’m like ‘Wow, it can’t get worse’, and then a bunch of Black people are getting shot in the streets, I’m horrified to leave my house because we live in a really, really racist part of the world, we live in Georgia in Forsyth County. If you guys don’t know where that is, that’s where Oprah got ran out by the KKK. Yeah, it’s fun, and the racism is still very much there, and people own guns and it’s horrifying every time I have to leave my house like, go to the store and get stuff because I’m not just worried about grades, now I’m worried about a pandemic, now I’m worried about getting shot because I’ve already had to worry about this my entire life but now it’s just accelerated, and it’s just more horrible than usual and I don’t know how I’m gonna live like this.

Hannah: Personally for me, the way I cope is, I try to take a break from social media. I am addicted to TikTok and last week there was a big protest on TikTok, because everyone’s like to talk about shutting down on Black creators, creators are stealing from the Black creators, saying the N word, getting away with it, Black people are saying that’s racist and their videos are getting taken down. So personally just seeing all that and being like, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair. For my mentality and for the sake of me, I had to get off of it, I had to take a break. And so I did, and I was fine. I just took a break from social media to just calm my mind. But then again, that news is just so deeply ingrained into the back of my mind, I couldn’t forget about it even if I wanted to…  I was driving with my friend and my friend is white, and so I was driving with him, and I saw a police car. I got really really nervous, even though I was going the speed limit, and I was terrified to change lanes just because I was afraid that he would use the smallest mistake to pull me over. And my friend was like ‘Why are you doing this, it’s just a cop, chill out,” and then it clicked in my brain, “You don’t have to worry about that. But to me that could be life or death,’ and it really hit me all of a sudden I was like, ‘Dang, I got off of social media but I can’t escape my reality sometimes.’ So it is really difficult to try to cope with that but I’m trying to do my best by looking at silver linings — I graduated or was supposed to graduate Tuesday, so it’s like, I made it! during pandemic but I still made it so it’s just trying to look at the good things instead of looking at the harsher sides of reality sometimes.

Kalen:  So for me especially while we have been quarantined, I recently realized that I was probably on the verge of anxiety attack three times a week, and I’m still working and everything, you know, essentially everything hasn’t changed, but I think I didn’t understand what was going on until Dr. Reshawna just talked about how people show up to therapy and Black people show up all put-together. I love to get dressed, and I think the fact that I was stuck in my house only having sweats to really put on. I think we also have an obsession with appearing to be okay, so with not having the source to be able to go out into the street into people who tell me how good I look and tell me that, ‘You’re wearing that outfit’, that it was bothering me that I wasn’t able to look okay and for other people to tell me that I looked okay, you know, and so what I had to do was I had to completely remove myself on social media. So I deleted all my social apps, I would only post as I needed to. And like I said earlier that I didn’t even know any of this stuff was happening right now, until I had to get on and post about this specific panel, then I was like, ‘Oh wait, the world is in another uproar you know’. But I will say recently that I’ve noticed in a check-in with myself that I have been doing a lot better mentally with this case because I think I’ve become desensitized to it all to where this isn’t new, you know, we see these stories for the past decade just over and over and over again. So what I’ve started to do was find different ways of allowing myself time to breathe and so I use the Calm app and the Unplugged app and using things to meditate. Also I do yoga, I tried to find ways to keep myself centered, I have sage and now even cleaning my house sometimes gives me the ability to be able to just let go of some of the frustration. So you really have to figure out what works for you, and what will give you some type of normalcy in your life, even within this pandemic. If that means going for a walk sometimes, that’s what you need to do, grab your mask and do what you need to do. 

Dr. Chapple: Well, first of all I want to applaud everyone on the panel because a lot of the things that I was going to say you’ve already said. It’s a little different for me, being a therapist and having a practice that was already virtual before COVID-19, and also being a college professor so you know I think about, first of all the people that I have to kind of see about, you know, my clients my students, I have children, that sort of thing, but every morning before I do anything. I have a check with myself, what I tell my clients, my students, anyone who will listen to me is feel your feelings whatever they are, you know, a lot of times, somebody will say you know I’m really upset about this but I shouldn’t. My youngest graduated from college and didn’t get to go, you know, to graduation and they were studying abroad and had to come home, you know they were really upset, but at the same time they’re saying ‘Well you know we’re all healthy, and you know, we have jobs’, different things like that and I said, ‘You know, I get it. Yes, there are good things going on in your life, but you still get to be upset about the things that you’re missing. You get to be upset about missing your friends, you get to grieve.’ I just got promoted to an associate professor and most people don’t even know what that is but you work for a long, long time, and then you go up in rank, and I’m the only Black professor in my college, and so I got that during COVID, so I at first was like you know this is wrong or should I celebrate or should I not celebrate but guess what, I worked for it, I accomplished it and I get to celebrate it. I also get to wake up and be tired just like everyone else, and decide what I’m going to do just like you said. You decide what you can do that day, and for someone like me and particularly people on social media which I subscribe to getting off social media when you can. Unfortunately, if you work in social media you can’t always do that but just being able to just turn the TV off, turn the social media off, stop taking it in once you’ve had enough, stop taking it in. But, you know, what are we going to do when we’re living in it, so you just have to do that check-in with yourself every single day it’s okay to say no, it’s okay to say you can’t, and it is 100% okay to feel your feelings.

Mitu: I love that. Your feelings are valid. And you can feel them. I also want to take a moment to remind everyone tuning into this that you are not alone, that we’re grateful you’re here with us, and that there are resources available to you for support, and that it is important for you to have conversations about mental health.

On resources for mental health: 
Hannah: I came up with the idea for the NotOK app when I was actually Charlie’s age. I was a freshman in high school just got diagnosed with chronic illness, I was bullied, harassed, sexually threatened really badly, struggled with eating disorders, self-harm, depression, anxiety until I couldn’t handle it and finally had a suicide attempt. But luckily my mom saved my life that night and that’s when it clicked in my head that I knew I needed this app, this resource that I not only could use for my mental health but also my chronic illness. So that’s when I really came up with the idea for this app. And when my brother and I were building it you know his nickname is Tech Support like he worked on the tech side I were done the marketing side. So when I was figuring out like, is this something that a lot of people can use, I was looking like at all the stories and just reading about how many stories of people who reacted after the fact, after somebody died by suicide. And I was like, they were feeling the exact same way I was, if I could share my story and save someone, then, hell yeah I’ll do it. So that’s when we really realized that we needed to start sharing our story because I’m strong enough to get through it, then they are too.

Charlie: Yeah, I totally agree with Hannah, when seeing her pass out and not be able to see her get better really fast or see her even get up sometimes, it was horrifying. And I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through what Hannah did, ever again.

Mitu: Thank you both. And I actually have it with my friends and we’ve had it since we heard about it on the Read a few years ago, so grateful for you two. And Kalen, you’ve been very intentional and speaking openly about your mental health, how you’ve taken mental health days away from being so present on social media and in the media generally. Why is it important for you to share why you’re taking a step away?

Kalen: I think it is important because I was starting to feel guilty about not feeling okay. I think as Black people like one of my least favorite things is when people tell me to stay humble. Because I believe that it’s actually a microaggression. Because the truth of the matter is, is that if I accomplished something. I should be able to celebrate that, and it shouldn’t be a fact that because I celebrated something I accomplished that’s a threat to you, and I think with my space in social media, I get a different amount of hate in different type of ways to where there’s a lot of intersectionality in it to where I’m like okay so do you not like because I’m Black or do you not like because I’m gay, like which one is it, and so I feel like I have to then figure out ways to be able to cope with that and also to understand that people are just talking on social media but that’s hard when you work in social media. So, like I’ve said, I have to always protect my energy. Another reason why I think I put that at the forefront of everything I do, but my mental health, that is, is because I say in order for me to make content that makes other people happy, I have to be happy with myself first. If I am not stable, if I am not mentally together, that energy will transfer into my content which will then transfer into you, and that just will not do.

Laurise: I just saw something I needed, and created it. My approach to Unbothered content has never really been a secret, it’s really just talk about Black girls are really talking about in real life, in mainstream media and it’s crazy how revolutionary that idea is, like, the stuff that I talked about and the sentiments that you’ll see on the page are things that are often inspired by me and the team’s Slack messages or wherein, to be honest, we also had an instance where this week we celebrated 150K followers on Unbothered, while also dealing with George Floyd and like it’s a balance but that joy and pain don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And I think that when we make it known that there are humans behind this page, and so when you do see a post go up that’s like happy in the morning and then some shit happens and some really angry posts is because we’re assuming our moods change the same as yours did and we’re just responding in the same way a friend would or the same way homegirl would in a group text and I think that that’s really what the strength is and how that takes place in community is able to exist by simply just allowing myself and the editors to be exactly who they are, in real life and not watered down. I think that a lot of Black media in the past has been kind of this thing where it either has to be really stereotypically Black like we’re only talking about natural hair and stuff all the time, as if we don’t do other things. And I think that the need really is interesting like yo, what are you talking about? Maybe you’re talking about spring cleaning and it has nothing to do with being Black but that’s still something that Black women can talk about, as opposed to addressing Black media as if it has to be this other. We’ll get people who come to us and say, ‘Hey, we want to sell unbothered and do all this partnership stuff, and all we get is like haircare brands and you know like brands of make-up, which is perfectly fine but it’s like, ‘Why is Dawn dish soap not talking to Unbothered? We do dishes. Why is, I don’t know, a candle not talking to Unbothered? We like candles. It doesn’t have to be like, oh, that definitely goes on the main refinery page so it’s for everybody, it’s like no Black woman also exist in all these different layers and being able to talk about us as if we’re not with this what allows that space to be so much of the community are able to move with, with what’s happening in the news right now.

On Black joy as a radical act, and how to find it:
Dr. Chapple:  Well, it is radical because, you know, a lot of times when we are happy or joyful and I know everyone on this panel will understand what I’m saying, the haters will come, the haters will come because we’re celebrating and we’re not supposed to celebrate, the haters will come because, they want to see us fail and don’t always want to see us happy. I tell everyone to do what you enjoy. It’s, If it’s not mainstream, if it’s not something that everyone else is doing but you like doing it, then you do it, you go and do it. It’s interesting, I have this picture on social media that is me at Disney World with Tiana, and I was in heaven because Tiana asked me what I did for a living, and I told her that I had a doctorate and I was a professor and Tiana kind of went like this and I kind of went like this and the photographer snapped us and it is pure joy, and so it’s funny because when you look at my social media, I’m a professor and I’m a therapist and I’m very serious. But the first thing you see is just me with my hands up and Tiana kind of celebrating me, and that picture brings me so much joy. In my classes, I bring my college students coloring pencils and coloring books and stickers, and I tell them, if it makes you happy, do it, celebrate it, be okay with it. And they first look at me like I’m crazy they’re like we’ve never sat in a graduate class where we’re coloring and I’m like, ‘Well you know what, in our profession, we hear those horrific things and we have to help people through them. So what you have to do is learn to practice self-care.’ And, you know, that joy and self-care are just synonymous for me.

Charlie: I give myself permission to access joy, basically by, if anyone says that I can’t be happy, I honestly just ignore them. I perfected the art of ignoring people, because I live with her and my annoying little rat dog. And that helps me a lot. And also finding hobbies, and like  I have so many hobbies that I developed during quarantine. I cook, I bake, I’m making these soft cookies this weekend because I’m giving up. I take like six-hour-long baths, just so I could just like relax and watch some Netflix and just vibe. Just find what makes you happy and don’t let other people take it away from you. That’s how I allow myself to have joy.

Hannah:  You know, I definitely agree with my brother. I love just little things that just make me happy. Personally I love fashion. I love my hair. It took a lot for me to learn how to love my hair as it is, because you know my brother and I live in a very non-diverse area, let’s just say that, so it took me a lot to start wearing it natural. I know that I started like last year, I’m obsessed with it so just taking care of my hair or picking up cute outfits with huge heels that I can’t walk in and just taking pictures and then during this time this really brings me – it’s my happy place, you know,

Kalen:  So I think this also ties back into how I talked about how people often tell me to stay humble and like how I can’t celebrate any of my wins without somebody telling me to stay humble. So actually, I have learned to separate business and personal. And so I celebrate in the personal. And another thing that I do is that I love to go when I think back to a time where I was just purely happy. When happiness was living within every crevice of my body in its most pure state and I think of being a child and I think of the innocence of that. And actually what I do for myself, fortunately, is I go to Disneyland once a month. And it’s funny because when this coronavirus thing was happening, “I was like, you telling me I can’t go to Disneyland?  Like how am I gonna survive?” And it’s just because I go there and I’m reminded of being the kid and the joy of that and the innocence of it all, and it brings me back to a state of just feeling grounded where nothing else matters in the world, I get to just escape so escapism is a way that I find joy and then when it’s time for me to come back to the world, I come back to the world but at least I’m coming back to the world with a new state of mind in a more refreshed type of way.

It doesn’t have to be as extravagant as Disney World or Disneyland. I mean, I think, if you want to go to a park and just swing on the swing. If you want to go fly a kite, you know, if you want to have a picnic in the park. If you want to go fishing, something that is so simple that reminds you of just simplicity, sometimes that’s what’s necessary.

Laurise: It’s interesting because the idea of self-care has changed a little bit for me this past month. I realized that I also am equating joy with self-care now. But before I couldn’t really do that because I was instead equating self-care with self-efficiency. And I was like, just trying to be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this favor for like Laurise of the future, and like do all this stuff I’m like, Oh, it’s gonna be good for me’, but I was essentially just burning myself out. And so I think, one, just recognizing that like doing nice things for yourself and self-care but also sometimes those nice things are just sitting in bath with your Netflix like you know like sometimes it is just like, Oh, I’m skipping this meeting, I’m playing hooky. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like okay so then the day that you know you want to like be this big crazy editor in chief and so do this for yourself and so like you’ll get this later. I think a lot of people have those mindsets to where it’s like, even like, I don’t want to be like that person who’s like don’t work out but like for me working out, is fun when it’s like yoga or like something that also involves mindfulness, whereas when I’m trying to like be healthy I’m like ‘Oh, I have to do this run.’ And for me, honestly, sometimes self-care has been like ‘You know what? I know that I’m like watching my weight right now, or whatever, which is really off brand for me but I have some thyroid issues that are unrelated to this conversation. But like, I’ll say, ‘You know what? I should not have this donut but damn it. I want this donut and I’m going to give myself this donut knowing damn well I shouldn’t have.’ But it’s just those decisions that like when you allow yourself to just indulge, live a little, loosen up your necktie. It’s just realizing that, ‘Yes, you’ve set these rules for you to take care of you.’ But also, if you think back to that version of you that was small. Yes, you had to do your homework and XYZ, but you know your mom would have gave you a lollipop afterwards, or you would have been able to receive some sort of reward or or trade-off or balance and it’s just that, that concept of mothering yourself, thinking of yourself as that young inner child version of yourself and how do you continue to serve that person as they get older, like what do they need. Maybe it is being like I need a computer so it’s like that’s not good for you the way your mom would. Because when you’re grown up, that’s your job now.

Mitu: Personally, I bookmarked this Twitter thread that is just Black people laughing and it is funny videos of Black folks laughing. That is my favorite thing to come back to. 

On what gives the panelists hope:
Hannah: For me — I was actually just talking to my mom about this the other day, I just looked into the mirror and said, ‘Wow, I’m so beautiful.’ And then I was like, ‘Wait, I’m a little too cocky.’ And then I turned my phone on and I saw the news and said, ‘Wow it’s amazing that I can still have this incredible confidence and I can still think so highly of myself ad be strong in spite of everything that the world is doing to try to knock me down. I have a chronic illness, I’m a Black woman in America today, and I’m still this fabulous, so that just gives me hope. 

Charlie: Listening to music by Black artists, because it slaps – I’m sorry. It’s just, mm. And because music is basically like everything to me, and listening to music by Black artists just reminds me there is a lot of good in the world even though some people are trying to take it out. And the music is immaculate.

Laurise: Honestly, Charlie and Hannah, just being able to interact with you guys and interact with the next generation. I’m really fortunate to be able to communicate who aren’t mya ge all the time because I have this really beautiful platform where people feel comfortable talking with us but I think about the next generation and how they are already so much smarter than us (thank god) and already making strides in the directions we need to be going, so when I think about hopefulness, I think about the next generation of Black kids doing awesome stuff*.

Kalen: I think what gives me hope is our resiliency. You know how you are asked what decade would you go back in time? I’m like baby I ain’t going nowhere, what you mean, I’m Black and gay, what you mean, I ain’t going back nowhere.But through it all, through all the struggles that we have endured as a people, even though they are terrible things we have encountered, those things have made us who we are, and it is because of those things that we are able to make that music that slaps, and to make that beautiful art, and it is through that struggle that we found a way to express ourselves in a way that no other person can do, why because they haven’t had to experience those things and needed to find the joy that we had to find over and over again to get us through. So I enjoy the resiliency and I just love Black magic in its entirety. 

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