Depression Cops

This guest post is part of AJ+’s ongoing conversation about mental health, how different communities deal with it, and who’s getting left out of the conversation.

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This is an excerpt from Imade Nibokun’s upcoming book Depressed While Black, from the chapter “The D Word.” Imade is the author of the DepressedWhileBlack Tumblr.

In December 2012, I brought the pieces of myself to a USC emergency crisis appointment on an obscure street in an obscure building that seemed not much more modern than a slave cabin. The Student Counseling building reeked of neglect and underfunding. Just like me.

I was such an emotional wreck that I had not one, but two school counselors staring at me as if I was minutes from my demise. The room was eerily quiet with only the sound of my belabored breaths and murmured phrases revealing my fizzling will to live. I looked down into the wilting Kleenex in my hands, making my locs dangle in front of my face like broken curtains. My crumpled posture was my feeble attempt to escape from the world. But I couldn’t hide from myself, let alone my counselors.

The shame of depression felt as excruciating as depression itself. A Pentecostal upbringing and a single-mom work ethic taught me that you “get delivered” and move on. After being unemployed for a year, I was now a 25-year-old journalism grad student with a full scholarship. I went from no work to overwork, with a heavy course load and exhausting documentary projects. My unemployment woes were gone, but depression remained.

“Many students have left school, gotten better, and come back. It’s a normal thing,” the white counselor said with ease, asking nothing about my home life or family background. She had sleek, shoulder-length blonde hair that stayed perfectly in place as she crossed her thin legs and casually laid back against the ergonomic office chair. She reminded me of the room’s decor: bland, innocuous, and conventional. The counselors’ advice was as template-driven as the fake plants and knock-off Monet. But I was not their template. I was broke, black, and frightened to return to my mom’s house, where religion replaced emotional support.

Anointing oil and the Holy Ghost

My mom’s Pentecostal faith seemed too loud, too frenetic, and too silencing for my life. That was her definition of blackness: you out-suffer white people with more style and flair in order to claim greater piety. But it was a piety I could no longer perform. I didn’t want to endure another tarrying session where elderly women shouted Hallelujah in my ears to get the Holy Ghost. I didn’t want my mom to wring her hands in prayer and put anointing oil on my forehead to heal me of anxiety. I craved compassion and not a spiritual to-do list.

“I don’t…want to go home,” I said, punctuating the sentence with a sobbing hiccup. “My mom doesn’t understand what I’m going through.” I knew that if I left school, I might as well come home pregnant.

I could already see the extra strength Tylenol bottle on the nightstand. If I went back home, I knew I would take the pills this time.

“I want to stay in school,” I said, with all the strength I could muster. “I just need some help.”

Police escort

“We can put you in a hospital until you don’t want to harm yourself,” the white counselor offered.

“USC police escorts you from campus and takes you directly to the hospital,” the African-American counselor added, as if depression cops were school protocol. She was a thick, solid, light-skin woman with two-strand twists grazing the shoulders of her casual black business suit. On face value, I should have connected with her. For a period of time, we had even attended the same mega-church, one that catered to college students and young professionals. But I felt that she was out to embarrass me for not taking her advice to get a therapist earlier in the year.

“Do the police have to take me? Can I just go by myself?” I had no desire to be stuffed in the back of a cop car for feeling sad. NWA’s “F*** The Police” floated in the back of my mind like elevator music. I already hated the LAPD for making my South Central neighborhood feel more like a military zone than a community. On a monthly basis, the whirring noise of police helicopters shook the house like violent earthquake tremors. Powerful helicopter lights beamed through my bedroom window looking for crime suspects. I learned from a young age that the police protect whites and terrorize blacks. My family still talked about a neighbor who was killed over two decades ago by the police in his backyard, and left outside for hours. Depression made me weak and vulnerable, and these are the people I was supposed to entrust myself to?

“No, you have to use a police escort.” The black counselor seemed to enjoy saying that.

“We could have you go to the hospital on Friday,” the white counselor said, playing good cop to the black therapist’s bad cop.

Fighting back

I came in wanting someone to talk to, and now I’m being sent to depression jail.

I fought back. Instead of going to the hospital, I negotiated to attend an outpatient program — pretty much a day care for mentally-ill people. But when I came back to choose an outpatient program from a recommended list, I was greeted with a $2,000 price tag for outpatient therapy. I’m near death and now they’re trying to send me with debt to the grave? No thanks.

I settled on finding a permanent therapist. A $15 co-pay was the only mental health treatment I could afford.

Imade Nibokun is a Non-Fiction MFA student at Columbia University writing her in-progress book, Depressed While Black. She writes about depression at the intersection of race and religion.