Courtney Ferguson is an intern with the Children’s Defense Fund for Summer 2020.
My physician recently asked me if I had any health issues. To that, I responded, “No.”
She proceeded to ask why I was taking as much medicine as I was.
“I have anxiety and take this medicine to help manage the symptoms that come with it.”
“So, you do have health issues.”
It was that very moment when I realized I had my own biases surrounding mental health. While I’ve been advocating on its behalf, I was still letting preconceived notions define a “health issue” in my mind. I’ve grown up seeing family and friends struggle with their illnesses, and acknowledged the severity of those diseases while undermining my own.
I have a health issue. Symptoms include frequent panic attacks, fear, hyperactivity, and fatigue.
This story of mine is not unique, nor is it told enough. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States and has affected over 40 million adults, yet, we all suffer alone. I’ve wondered why many go to the doctor when they have a cold, but even more, don’t go when they are feeling sad and worried.
Growing up Black meant that discussions around mental health never occurred. It was my pediatrician who told me I needed to see a therapist. Had I not had that conversation, likely, I wouldn’t have continued therapy to this day. Fortunately, my family had health insurance and was able to access and utilize these services. Unfortunately, this isn’t everyone’s reality.
Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience a mental health problem than their counterparts, yet they are half as likely to receive treatment. Why? Cultural barriers, such as stigma and poverty, make it nearly impossible to get help. Discrepancies in mental health research have also excluded Black and brown communities. Lack of representation in mental health providers makes it difficult to find a therapist that can empathize with the Black experience. So, these messages or lack thereof create a multigenerational cycle of stigma, which does a disservice to Black youth.
As a result, they are far less likely to know when to reach out for help. They suffer in silence. Their teachers and classmates decide they will be known as the “troubled kids.”
With suicide rates among Black adolescents increasing by 73 percent, when will there be a point when our children decide that enough is enough and ask for the help they deserve?
My hope for the future, for our nation’s children, is for there to no longer be a stigma around mental health. Our future relies on the success of our children and youth. If we aren’t taking care of them now, how can we be sure they are taken care of in the future? This passion has encouraged me to start a nonprofit organization. One that provides mental health services to youth in areas where these services aren’t available. One that uplifts children of color and shows them that anything is possible. And one that may change everyone’s opinion about mental health.
Mental health is physical health, and I hope one day, it will be treated as such.