In My Voice: Seeking Help and Navigating Discrimination as a Black, Female Therapist

“I have lived through this toxic narrative — that somehow, as a black woman, I didn’t deserve care or was weak to be seeking care.”

Throughout Mental Health Month, we will be sharing Q&As with individuals who have experience with different aspects of mental health and gun violence. Today, we share a Q&A with Lindsay Haygood, MSW, LCSW. Lindsay is a supporter of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and a clinical social worker who works with clients who are struggling with substance use. She recently relocated to Portland and will be working with students who are struggling with socioeconomic and academic issues.

  1. Why did you decide to pursue a career as a mental health care provider?

I have always wanted to be a counselor or therapist. I knew the profession would bring me joy due to the ability to create and foster human connection and healing. I have also seen firsthand what mental health disparities look like and how they impact families and the community at large. Having that lived experience has shaped my passion and desire to continue challenging societal norms.

2. You mentioned lived experience. Do you have your own experiences with mental illness? If so, when did you first notice that something was going on with your mental health?

I was in middle school when things started to appear different for me. I began to notice that I was always experiencing a heightened sense of awareness, felt my chest tightening, and felt the world crashing down around me. But my outward expression appeared completely functional. I remember having many conversations with friends and loved ones to gauge my own reality. I noticed that my mood would change if I sensed that danger may be afoot or conflict was about to take place. I disassociated a lot — disconnecting from my thoughts, feelings, and memories — but I would not admit to this. I was so good at it that I lost many memories.

I would sleep for as long as I was allowed. I would isolate. I would feel extreme guilt when I’d cancel plans with people I loved because I just couldn’t get out that day. I also ate a lot of my feelings. Food became a friend that I could simultaneously count on and neglect. My nutrition was trash, I felt like trash, and I had zero sense of self esteem or self awareness. I fought with people I loved. I held so much guilt for not being able to just push through and just “do what I gotta do.”

One morning I screamed, “I’m just so depressed! I don’t want to do anything but exist and that’s sometimes hard to do!” I remember my mother attempted to encourage and uplift me with our faith and motivational words. She assumed it would pass. So did I.

3. What treatment did you seek? What was your experience like?

Honestly, I did not seek treatment until about age 24. I had not had access to regular and affordable health insurance that would cover mental health until then.

Even after I sought care, I encountered obstacles as a black woman. I have experienced some anti-blackness in my treatment. I have lived experiences with being ignored, discriminated against, and insulted when seeking treatment. I’d explain my PTSD symptoms and anxiety and be discounted as a drug seeker or told, “You are a strong, young black woman. You can handle it.”

I had one experience where a person-of-color psychiatrist asked me why I was there. She told me to be strong and get it together. “Black women are strong,” she said. I sobbed in her office. I asked her to understand that I have an illness and I need treatment. I told her I was not seeking any type of controlled substance. I explained my experience with trauma, anxiety, PTSD, etc. and she presented as standoffish and immediately demanded that I present her with a formal psychiatric history. I was so disillusioned by this reaction that I never went back. It took me two years to get enough courage to see another psychiatrist. And despite my negative experience, you can bet your bottom dollar I still wanted that provider to be black.

I am now 29 years old, and for the first time in my life, I feel functional. I was able to meet with a psychiatrist who was able to overlook personal and professional bias and diagnose and treat me properly.

4. How do you think your experience with mental illness allows you to help others?

I have been on both sides. I’ve been an advocate for my own treatment and an advocate for others. I have lived through this toxic narrative — that somehow, as a black woman, I didn’t deserve care or was weak to be seeking care. I don’t want others to have to live through that.

Knowing the terminology and how the mental healthcare field works and still experiencing anti-blackness and racial bias in healthcare is mind-boggling. It was a struggle for me to play mental chess with providers and attempt to justify my diagnosis. I can only imagine the awful microaggressions and blunders made in the medical office towards people who are not as knowledgeable about the field. This inspired me to keep making noise and keep advocating for people — especially people of color.

5. Gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color. How do you think gun violence affects the mental health of these communities?

Honestly, it changes the way people operate and live their lives. It forces people to be in a constant state of heightened awareness and be hyper-vigilant and observant. People are exposed to generational trauma from living in areas where gun violence is common. It definitely affects people’s mental health, and as I mentioned, there are many barriers to care for people of color.

6. Do you think mental illness is viewed or treated differently in communities of color? If yes, how so?

Oh, yes. I think in communities of color, we have internalized oppression that we reinforce by invalidating mental health concerns or having rigid beliefs about change, substance use, and mental health. Some even see mental health issues as a “moral failure.” As a community, we need to continue to destigmatize mental health and substance use disorders. Further, I think black and brown liberation will give folks agency to seek their own healing and encourage others to do the same.

7. What do you want people to know about mental health and/or mental illness that they might not already know?

Mental illness doesn’t mean someone is deficient. It doesn’t mean someone is unable to contribute to the greater good. It doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve dignity to make their own choices, even when others may not agree. Self-determination can be a hard pill for some to swallow, and yet it is everything we all must cling to in order to ensure dignity and respect are uplifted, valued, and enforced.

8. Is there anything you would like to add about mental illness or gun violence that we have not already asked?

Part of the conversation that must continue to exist is around the prison industrial complex, white supremacy, mass incarceration of black and brown folks, and the other systems of oppression at work. They may present as irrelevant to this topic, yet so many of those that are affected by those systems are disproportionately incarcerated, silenced, and stripped of their basic rights. We must approach mental illness, race, and incarceration status using an intersectional lens. They are intertwined. We cannot afford to ignore any of them.