The Threesome That Lasts for Generations

The mind, the body, and the soul are one. We’re interconnected and complete in that way. Yet, there’s been a war against the Black community for centuries on all three. When it comes to mental health, there’s more at stake today than most even realize. That’s by design. 

We can no longer afford to ignore, deny, or suppress. Rather, it’s time to get unmistakably clear on the forces that overwhelm Black lives and position us within an ongoing mental health crisis. We’re not here to blame the Black community for any shortcomings. Instead, we’re problematizing the entire system that put our lives in this position in the first place. Now is when we decide what we want for future generations and use history as a tool for change moving forward. 

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley 

I believe in the human soul. In essence, we are Spirit living in bodies. Our minds guide us through the limited time we have here in these bodies, which means much depends on the quality and condition of our mental health. We use our minds in so many powerful ways: perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire- often more than one at a time. For a moment, put just one of these functions to work: your imagination. Imagine yourself as a child; about five years old, no older than eight. Everything is possible, because nothing and no one has had the chance to make you believe otherwise. The world is big, but safe; because you are innocent and full of lighthearted love. Therefore harm has not touched you. There’s much to know, see, and do. You feel excited and energized by all the possibilities that await you. A child-like sense of wonder and curiosity make you feel completely free. Free from anything holding you back, and free to live life in smooth harmony. You create it in the mind, feel it in the soul, and live it through the body…peace of mind at its finest.   

Now, let me ask you one question: Does it matter if that mind, body, and soul belong to a Black child? 

The answer is yes. Yes, it most definitely does. 

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free.” — Thich Nhat Hanh,

It matters because Black lives have been subjected to a mental game; one that has very real consequences on the community’s overall well-being. When I think about mental health, I think about freedom. The idea that we can let go of any and everything weighing us down; the mental, the physical, the spiritual, and the emotional burdens in all of their sorts. Gone! Just like that, in an instant. Yet as history would have it, not all freedoms have been afforded equally. Such as the freedom to be a thinking, feeling being and getting acknowledged as such. No one wants to be depressed, but white children and adults get the privilege of being diagnosed and treated as such. Meanwhile, Black children and adults with the same symptoms get labeled as disruptive, lazy, or fundamentally flawed. 

Times have changed, but don’t let new rhetoric fool you. We’re still living in a country that shed blood and destroyed its own land for the right to exploit and profit off of black skin. Beyond our own communities, Black bodies are used for utility. How far can you throw? How high can you jump? What rhythms can I watch you move your body to? What styles can you influence? How much cotton can you pick for me? The utmost concern is, “how much money can I make off of you?” Not “how are you feeling?…Really feeling?” Black people who experience mental health issues and display them through associated behaviors don’t fit into the role America had planned; thus are seen as too much of a liability. Through a very strategic, intentional pipeline, this is how mass incarceration persists. 

Black lives do not have access to the same freedoms our counterparts have, since our counterparts have not been repeatedly subjected to the same mental burdens that Black lives have…for centuries. I’m calling out historical dehumanization. Carried out through systemic oppression and ongoing violence against Black bodies, The Myth of Black Inferiority is perpetuated. Socioeconomic disparities between Black communities and other races is consequential proof. The effects of structural racism turn into personal traumas and heavy mental burdens for individuals to carry.  

Mental burdens aren’t just imaginary problems. They are real. They are felt by more members of our communities than we can see. Mental burdens look and feel like depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, paranoia, and stress, just to name a few. Left unbothered, Black people are no more likely to experience a mental health issue than those of other racial or ethnic groups. Anyone with the capacity to think and feel can slip into these head spaces. However when it comes to mental health, Black lives are troubled by yet another disparity. African Americans are more likely to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than white people…because we were not left unbothered.  

While our true history is rich, much of our story was stolen and rewritten. Our family was captured, bloodlines were viciously severed, we were sold and used as property, raped and beaten, and made to feel fundamentally worthless; all while somehow managing to build other racial groups up. Still, Black lives somehow became labeled the dangerous villain in this dark, twisted narrative. 

In any other context, what I’ve just described would be considered abuse and handled accordingly (I pray). Intervention and intentional care for the survivor would be top priority. Yet, experiencing centuries of systematic oppression has trained our people to remain unflinching, even in the most unbearable circumstances. Resilience is built into our DNA. Without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have survived their reality and future generations would never know of their supreme strength. 

But when we start to unpack the word resilience, it becomes clear why African Americans are 20% more likely to develop a debilitating mental health disorder, as well as why of that 20%, only half seek treatment. The other half? Well, hurt people hurt people. Meaning unhealed traumas unintentionally get passed on within and throughout generation after generation. Some say generational curses are a myth. The data says otherwise.  

Traumas remain unhealed because resilience asks us to remember the trauma, but silence the pain that it creates. Just endure. Anyone who is conditioned to silence their own pain will not be able to hear what needs to be addressed in order to heal. 

Suppressing emotion kept our people alive for many years. To survive in extremely toxic environments, such as slavery or the Jim Crow era, one must remain extremely solid. Today, the threat is not exactly the same, yet there’s still this tendency to disconnect from the thoughts and emotions that feel just too heavy to deal with. The logic becomes, “if it doesn’t feel good to think about, think about something else.”  

I dare to say the largest threat to the Black community today is our relationship with mental health. It’s the foundation from which we think, feel, and move; but there’s a crack. We’re living in a system that considers us inferior and won’t acknowledge the real consequences of being made to feel that way. What are social freedoms when unequal access to career, financial, housing, food, educational, and health resources gaps that leave our community unprotected? How are we supposed to ever truly feel mentally free when we’re constantly triggered by verbal and physical attacks on our bodies; from both within and around our communities?  

Consider this to be mental and emotional gaslighting. Let’s throw fire on this race for years, severely disrupt generational development, but then tell them they’re the problems. No self-worth = no hope. No hope = no progress. No progress = fall behind…which leaves ample space for “others” to acquire more, bigger, and better. If this were a relay race, the first runner would have nothing to pass on to their teammate because their privileged opponent chose to get ahead by stealing the baton. The definition of disenfranchisement.     

Too many are suffering in silence. Extreme resilience will keep too many of our people emotionally wounded for no good reason. We must acknowledge symptoms of historical and generational trauma for what they are, and allow ourselves the grace to look inward and tend to our minds. 

“Just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”- Jesse Williams

Even though slavery in the U.S. was abolished in 1865, systems of oppression have only been reworded and reworked to keep Black lives in an ongoing struggle. Black lives represent 13.4% of the U.S. population. Within our community, 16% reported experiencing a mental health issue in the past year. 16% may sound like no big deal, but that actually turns out to be over 7 million people. According to Mental Health America, the amount of Black people who reported having a mental health issue in the past year is larger than the populations of Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia combined. Remember: these numbers only represent the mental health issues that were reported. Countless issues go unreported, so these statistics barely capture the true mental health crisis on our hands. Why? We feel as though there’s no safe way for us to exhale.   

Mistrust in the system is validated by the system doing untrustworthy things. In the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyed prompted voices around the world to scream, “I can’t breathe,” in protest to police brutality and legalized racism. Black communities are struggling to breathe in more ways than one as oppressive structures restrict relief. When you carry the fear of being overmedicated because of your skin color, undermedicated because of your skin color, misunderstood because of your skin color, or improperly labeled as a “threat to society” because of your skin color…speaking out about your mental health does not feel like a viable option. The convenient options become to pray it out, forget about it, or keep it quiet. 

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it” – Zora Neale Hurston

At this point, how should mental health in the Black community be addressed and why does it even matter? To address mental health in meaningful ways, we must start talking. We need to be able to identify what depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, and other mental health challenges look like. We must put language around what we see, and become familiar with definitions so that they no longer carry stigmas. Simply put, mental health speaks to  one’s mental and emotional well-being/condition. Mental illness, on the other hand, affects how one thinks, feels, and/or behaves. There’s no sense in attaching “good” or “bad” labels to either. There’s no such thing as good vs. bad when it comes to mental health because it’s not on us to judge. It’s about taking on an objective perspective to recognize what is, and putting in the effort to navigate that.    

Mental health in the Black community matters because, for us, it’s generational. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve experienced blatant racism firsthand, or not. Historical devaluation touches Black lives in a low-key way, yet has substantial effects on our collective well-being. Social determinants such as humanity, worth, intellect, culture, morals, values, sexuality, hair, skin, and more influence how we view the world, as well as how the world perceives us. That perception is often one-sided or flawed, which is how socially constructed myths and stereotypes get established and upheld. 

Myths and stereotypes aren’t just baseless claims about a group of people. They pose concrete risks and repercussions that transcend time and space. Consider economic mobility within the Black community. In 1863, Black Americans owned one-half of 1% of the nation’s wealth. Today, our community owns just over 1.5% of wealth for roughly the same percentage of the national population. Economic mobility controls buying power, which ultimately determines one’s ability to access food, housing, education, and resources of all sorts. Interfering with one’s ability to access these essentials will, over time, cause their mental health and overall well-being to deteriorate. Again, the proof is in the data. Black people who live in poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those living over 2x the poverty level.   

These trends won’t change themselves. If we don’t place our mental health at the center of discussions at every level, we risk failing future generations. We can debate, we can litigate, boycott, educate, protest, fight, etc; like we have done for years on end. But until we collectively take ownership of our minds and how they are used; until we systematically address the impact that structural oppression has had on our community’s mental health…our efforts are incomplete. 

Culture is created and maintained through stories, both traumatic and triumphant. We pass these on through the mind, the body, and the soul. This is the most important threesome there will ever be, because it captures energy from yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Widespread healing and growth starts at the individual level, then spreads to families, and multiplies across communities; both near and far. We want our children’s children’s children to be able to focus on their upward mobility and progressive development; not stuck trying to heal the same generational traumas that were handed to us. If we want different statistics for the generations to come, we must use history as a lesson and begin the necessary work today, together. 

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