A Powerful Essay About Race and Mental Illness

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Photo: evablue/all rights reserved

Samantha Irby, a Chicago-based writer, has a great essay up at Cosmopolitan. It’s about mental health and race and stigma, and it highlights the complicated factors that can stand between any individual and getting the help they need. Growing up as an African-American in the suburbs of Chicago with a disabled mother, Irby writes that she grappled with depression and anxiety, but whenever she considered seeking help for her condition, she ran into all sorts of cultural and social pressure — both self- and other-inflicted — not to.

No one in my house was talking about depression,” she writes at one point. “That’s something that happened to white people on television, not a thing that could take down a Strong Black Woman.” Plus, as a result of her race and gender, people interpreted her suffering in a less-than-compassionate way: “[I]f you’re African-American and female, not only are you expected to be resilient enough to just take the hits and keep going, but if you can’t, you’re a black bitch with an attitude. *Rolls eyes for sarcastic effect.* You’re not mentally ill, you’re ghetto.” And, perhaps conditioned by everyone not to take her own issues seriously, Irby justified not seeking help to herself by pointing out that things could have been worse: “[B]ecause I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself and could keep a job and make friends and pay my rent and not do heroin, I made peace with it.”

This line of thinking didn’t stop even after a massive panic attack put her in a doctor’s office. “I was so embarrassed, ashamed to be talking to [the doctor] about being so sad as he dumped a syringe full of Ativan into my arm. I was sure I was letting Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman down by talking about my silly little feelings.”

Part of what makes this such a compelling read is the focus not just on the social and cultural factors that can impede people from getting help, but on Irby’s metacognition — that never-ending commentary in her head about her own thinking. We all think about thinking, but for people with depression or anxiety, of course, this running conversation can be particularly brutal, circular, and self-flagellating. Any piece of writing that helps take readers inside the head of someone who is suffering from mental illness is important, and that’s exactly what Irby’s piece does. Read it!