“We ask that no one record the stories that they hear here today. And if there is law enforcement in the room, we ask you to leave. We’re serious. You need to leave. Actually, if you are law enforcement, can you raise your hand?”
I was attending the local Black Lives Matter meeting. I was unsure if I had a place there, but I’m so glad I showed up. This month’s topic was “Supporting Folks with Disabilities.”
A take-no-nonsense woman is at the front of the room. She asks the speaker to “roll on up here,” and the first speaker comes up on a wheelchair. She’s the director of a local nonprofit in the city helping people with disabilities live independent lives. It was established in the 70s, with disability rights being an offshoot of the civil rights movement. The woman explains that a person with a disability is someone who identifies as having a disability. Some people might just consider themselves “differently abled,” so you should always ask before assuming. She herself identified as disabled, but that doesn’t means she is not independent and able to do everything in her life that she wants to do.
The speaker goes over abelism and ableist language. Some examples of ableist language that most of us use everyday are “insane, crazy, stupid, dumb, bipolar, crippled.” When we throw these words around casually, it leaves a stigma and disrespects people who actually experience these disabilities. Disabilities are not just physical, and also include mental health.
The next speaker is Teddy, an African American social worker who works specifically with minority youth.
Teddy begins by stating that African Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems. Why is this? Teddy then explains the concept of racial trauma, which is race based traumatic stress.
“Black folks are traumatized on a daily basis,” Teddy explains. “Harassment, witnessing racial discrimination and violence, experiencing institutional racism.” This racial trauma is manifested in a variety of ways in black culture, such as increased vigilance and suspicion of institutions, avoiding eye contact and only trusting those that are within their own network. Racial trauma is also expressed in increased sensitivity to threat, encouraging defensive postures, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed.
Increased psychological and physiological symptoms from unresolved trauma increases stress, decreased immune system function, increased anxiety and depression and deepens fractures in relationships. Increase alcohol and drug use are used as self medication for managing pain and unresolved trauma. However, these patterns begin to become their own disease through addiction (this is known as dual diagnosis, meaning mental illness accompanied by addiction). Most all substance abuse is linked to trauma: 1/3 of all people who suffer from mental illness are drug abusers, and 1/2 of people with severe mental illness are drug abusers.
Black folks often self medicate, but don’t attribute the reason they are doing so to mental illness. This has to do with black history in America: during the war on drugs targeting mainly black people, mental illness was not spoken about. When arrests of black people are made by the police on the nightly news, mental illness is not spoken about.
“We can’t afford to pay to see the doctor, or medication, and we’re not introduced to the idea that that is even an option in our black communities. We are told to ‘pray it away,’” a woman from the audience comments.
Popular coping mechanisms in the black community are marijuana.
“We need to think about decolonizing our diet as well,” a black farmer with face tattoos says. “The number one killer of African Americans is salt and sugar. Food is just as much a coping mechanism as marijuana.”
Increase aggression is presented to appear tough. This is a way of coping with danger, by attempting to control physical social environment. Black people are generally living in a chronic state of danger.
Black people experience more violent crime in their lives, and they also experience racial trauma their entire life. This leads to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder, or, as the black farmer in front called in, post traumatic slave disorder).
Trauma changes brain chemistry, and then it is passed on through genes and is inherited by a newborn baby from its mother while in the womb. A woman who worked as a doula for black women said that in her experience, medical professionals can be the worst racists. This racism has an immediate effect on infant mortality rates, as 11.6 black babies die for every 4 white babies that die. According to the doula, a black woman with a PhD fares worse in childbirth than a white woman who didn’t graduate highschool. Racial trauma starts deep in the womb, and then is carried out throughout the babies life as racism directed at them and their community, and as institutional racism leaving black communities in poverty and oppression.
Lack of knowledge leads many to believe that mental health conditions are a personal weakness or punishment from god. The idea that you can “pray it away” is one of the biggest myths in communities of color. This goes for police killings as well, “pray it away,” instead of taking direct action. And asking your preacher for help with problems at home: “pray it away.”
“…Ma’am, I’ll get to you after this woman speaks,” Teddy is practically having to stop the white woman from speaking. Though the discussion surrounding myths around mental health in the black community has been directed specifically toward the black people in the room, this white woman is jumping out of her seat to answer.
Teddy goes on to explain another myth in the black community: that mental health professionals will try to use mind control or manipulate black people. This myth is also based on history as well, with the needless scientific experiments black and brown people were subjected to. Another myth is the rock bottom myth, that everything will get better once you hit rock bottom.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” the presenter asks the white woman moments later, when he is trying to respond to the first woman’s statements.
“I’ve just been trying to speak for awhile now! You haven’t called on me! I wanted to speak about my experiences with depression…” the woman proceeds to tell her story, completely uninvited.
“Thank you for sharing, ma’m,” the presenter says and tries to steer the conversation back to black folks. Though Black Lives Matter meetings are open to all, the meetings are centered around the experiences of black people. Since most of everyday life is centered on the experiences of white people, meetings like this are a time to sit back and listen, not talk over others. There’s always that one white person in the audience that doesn’t get this. And it’s always really painful. Sit back and listen to the people you’re hear to learn from. Don’t make this about you.
The final speaker, Bliss, was a veteran from the U.S. military. As a woman of color she went into the military because it seemed like a chance to escape poverty. She came back from multiple deployments to the Middle East with full blown PTSD, (hallucinations, depression, voices in her head, anxiety, homelessness, suicide attempts) and has been struggling for the past 10 years to get her life back.
She began with statistics: there are over 1 million people in the military, and of those 1/3 are people of color. Hispanics are not listed as “people of color” by the US government, but make up and additional 11% of the military. There are also certain agreements the US makes with illegal immigrants, promising them citizenship if they will serve five years in the military.
Bliss speaks briefly about homelessness in the US, stating that 45% of homeless vets are African American or Hispanic even though these populations only account for 13% of the US population. More than 1/2 homeless vets are disabled, and 2/3 are involved in substance abuse. 22 vets commit suicide daily, and long ago more veteran died of suicide than died from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
Concerning gender, more women of color served in the military than men of color. The opposite is true for white people, with more white men serving than white women. This has to do with freedom- there is less choice for women of color than there is for white women.
One third of women in the military are assaulted, most of the time by another person in the military (and often in their chain of command, the ones they are closest to). Of these assaults, 86% go unreported. Of the 14% reported, only 20% of those are ever actually prosecuted, and only 9% of those are actually declared sex crimes.
Bliss then goes on to perform two spoken word pieces she has written in response to her experience in the military, and then a monologue play she has written. The meeting goes an hour longer than it is scheduled to go, and it is packed full of information I’m glad I didn’t miss.