"I need to see an effing therapist I am NOT OKAY!"
I remember screaming this to my Mother, standing on the stairs of our home at the age of 17. I remember that she just looked at me, and went into her room without saying a word. Two weeks later I was sitting in Leslie Pruyn's office, a licensed clinical therapist. Now, at 32 I still see Leslie and I can say with confidence that I am okay. I can also say that it took a long time for me to be okay, and an even longer time for my family and friends to be okay and comfortable with the idea that I struggled with some mental health issues, and that I saw a therapist regularly.
Today, the subject of mental health and the open dialogue around it is more popular than ever. However, when I realized that I 'wasn't okay' and screamed at my Mom to do something about it 15 years ago, talking about mental health wasn't okay. If you went to therapy you were crazy. End of story. Up until that point the words depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. were just terms that I saw in my psychology textbook at school. As a young Black woman, it was a point of shame for me to be going to therapy. At the time, I had a friend named Lauren* who had been seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist since we were 13. I clearly remember her 'diagnosing' me one night on the way home from a party at my sometimes boyfriend's house. I was upset because other girls were there, and I remember her saying, "girl you are depressed." I immediately became defensive. Me? Depressed? She was nuts. She was the one that went to therapy and had a prescription. I wasn't crazy, I was fine! But the more I talked with her, and the more she talked with me about her diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, anxiety, and depression, the more I realized that maybe she was right.
When I began to see my therapist, I found that Lauren* was right. I was depressed and had anxiety issues, but I wasn't crazy. Being in high school and having a therapist was NOT cool. It was something that I felt that I had to hide from my friends and even my family. I feared that their reactions to the news of me having a therapist would be similar to my reaction when Lauren* told me that I was depressed. I didn't want people to change their opinions of me or think that I was 'crazy'. I was and (still sometimes am) a perfectionist, and going to therapy did NOT fit into that image. I lied about going to therapy for years. Telling friends that I had Dr's appointments or errands to run whenever a therapist appointment conflicted with something they asked me to do. I even stopped going to therapy for a year or two in my early twenties because I was ashamed that I need therapy to 'feel better.'
Over time, I shared my 'secret' with my family, close friends, and my long-term boyfriend. All of whom were uncomfortable with the news when I first told them that I had a therapist and I had bouts of anxiety and depression. Several times I've heard the words you should NEVER say to anyone suffering from mental health issues: "just get over it," "just suck it up," "you're fine, you're wasting your money," etc. The looks in their eyes when I told them… you would have thought that I told him I was going to chemotherapy instead of cognitive-behavioral therapy, lol. The reactions ranged from pity from my family to down-right denial from my boyfriend, and confusion and curiosity from my friends. Only crazy people went to therapy, right? And only crazy people who weren't black…right?
A stigma existed and still exists around mental health and mental illness. I'm proud and happy to see that a lot of the conversation about mental health and mental illness has shifted over the years. However, the stigma still exists, and it is still very prevalent in the Black community. You will hear that Black people "don't go to therapy." And after 15 years of therapy, my response is always "They should. EVERYBODY should go." Therapy can serve a different purpose for every individual, depending on what you need. Although the judgment and misunderstandings that I experienced when telling my family about my struggles with mental health and having a therapist were isolating and upsetting, it also helped me to realize why therapy is important for me. I just need to be heard. Simple as that. When I realized that therapy and my therapist was a safe place where I could say whatever I wanted without fear of judgment or without someone telling me what to do, it became easier to have conversations with my loved ones about having a therapist and about my depression and anxiety. It became easier for me to reassure them that I was OKAY. Therapy and the words anxiety and depression didn't mean that something was wrong with me. It meant that I had a safe place and a person that I trusted to better understand myself and improve the parts of myself that I wasn't comfortable with, and overcome obstacles in life.
Through my therapy, I've been able to act as a pseudo therapist to many of my friends and family members. I've been able to pass on so many great tools and techniques and information to my circle and to help them understand that therapy is OKAY. Be proud of the fact that you do or have done the work to uncover the things about yourself that you don't like, or that cause you pain, or that you can't control, and that you are seeking help. I hope that the stigma around mental health continues to lessen and that seeking professional health becomes as common as going to the doctor when you twist your ankle or you have a cold that just won't quit. Most of all, I hope that the conversations we're seeing today continue and that people continue to understand that there's help available and that it's OKAY to say that you aren't OKAY.
Written by: Briana J.