What we learned from our conversation on mental health with people of color and communities around the world

For the past month, AJ+ has been talking about how different communities and cultures deal with mental health issues. Our aim: to spark a broader online dialogue on a topic that’s often hard to talk about, and bring marginalized voices into the conversation.

We started by featuring NYC-based activist Dior Vargas and her People of Color + Mental Illness Photo Project. The conversation launched by that post inspired us to reach out to guest contributors from the U.S., Canada, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates. You can find those posts here. Many others from our awesome community (yes, YOU!) also joined in on Medium, Twitter and Facebook.

Through a month of debates and discussions, here are some things we learned:

1. People of color experience specific mental health challenges that white Americans don’t.

Rates of depression, psychological distress, PTSD and other mental illnesses are greater in some racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. than others.

POC also have less access to treatment, particularly culturally-appropriate treatment.

That reality is driven home in Imade Nibokun’s story, when two university counsellors tell her she’ll need a police escort to go to the hospital:

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?
Imade Nibokun submitted this photo to Dior Vargas’ People of Color + Mental Illness photo project.

2. Just because your family or community refuses to see your mental health struggles, doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

@Amna_AlMadani on how depression is treated in the UAE

We heard from many people from many places who said family, friends, or even doctors have shut them down when they came out about their mental health issues.

Here’s what Vietnamese-Canadian Julia Nguyen had to say:

I have relatives to this day who believe that people with mental illnesses are institutionalized and that “normal” people can just “deal with it.” To them, my family was the black sheep that dealt with problems that weren’t “Asian enough.” As a result, I’ve never opened up to them.
Julia Nguyen submitted this photo to Dior Vargas’ People of Color + Mental Illness photo project.

And AJ+’s Danna Fakhoury:

Relatives often reminded me that my life as a California-born Arab-American was much easier than the life my family had left behind, and I knew they were right. So what could possibly lead me to have a mental illness?
Jordanian-American Danna Fakhoury (bottom right) on her 9th or 10th birthday.

In spite of that, many contributors did eventually seek help, and have seen results.

3. Of course, there’s also such a thing as over-diagnosis.

Camila Plata wrote that while mental illness may be a taboo topic for Colombians, in the U.S., mental illness has become “the label for any behavior that differs from what is believed to be ‘normal’” — and maybe that’s not such a great thing, either.

4. Mental health might not be a priority for your country or community — because there are other issues to deal with.

Here’s AJ+’s Mayra Baez Jimeno on why many young Colombians don’t talk much about mental health:

Colombia is currently dealing with a peace process intended to end more than 50 years of internal conflict, drug trafficking and wide-spread criminality. It’s also one of the most unequal countries in the world, with more than 30% of its people living in poverty. Given those circumstances, mental illness isn’t a top concern for most people.
Students at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota, Colombia. Photo: Mayra Báez Jimeno

5. Breaking down stigma often starts with people challenging their own communities.

That’s a point brought up by Julia Nguyen, but we saw that theme again and again. Here’s a tweet from this awesome conversation in response to Ahmad Altamimi’s post on the UAE:

Danna Fakhoury tries to tackle the issue head-on, online and off:

Mental illness isn’t only reserved for those coping with a traumatic experience or unfavorable genes — it is indiscriminate and extends beyond a Western problem and influence.
When talking with my family and the larger Arab community, I try to emphasize the concept that mental illness is normal and affects the world’s population indiscriminately.

6. Bottom line: You are not alone.

No, that’s not a Michael Jackson reference — it’s an astute point made on Twitter by Ingrid P. Gomez, commenting on Dior Vargas’ photo project:

It took a lot of guts for people to contribute to this conversation, especially those who shared their own personal stories. Thanks, and keep talking.

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