How Being Black and Depressed Led to My Proudest Accomplishment (thus far)

Shortly after graduating in May 2011, life, in short, was pretty good. So it seemed. I landed a decent 9-to-5 with excellent benefits, had my own apartment in Brooklyn’s gentrifying safe, clean, and convenient Prospect Heights neighborhood, and I’d co-founded an independent artist development company (The Soul Ascension) with a friend and peer.

From the outside, at only 21, I seemed to be living the life. But on the inside, I was constantly dealing with an internal battle. I could never quite put a finger on what was wrong, but I knew that something was off. I struggled to get out of bed every morning; peeling the covers off felt like peeling off layers of cement. I was always tired despite being a “clean” eater and a recently-turned fitness addict. I’d go home often after having a good and just cry. For no apparent reason. Some weekends I wouldn’t leave my apartment, isolating my extroverted-self from the world. I’d alternate between sleeping, crying, binge eating, and cuddling with my cat — the struggle was real.

I blamed my job. I blamed my life-long battle with body-image and self-acceptance. I blamed failed relationships. But even as those areas improved, I was still unhappy. My family would constantly tell me how proud they were of me and to have faith, pray, and attend church — but that alone didn’t work for me.

Testing lighting to shoot an independent artist interview for The Soul Ascension at Brooklyn Museum in 2011. Don’t I look happy? I was depressed.

I truly had no idea what was wrong with me. About a year and a half later I decided to use Google to self-diagnose myself. From my research I concluded that I was dealing with depression. I looked into DIY treatment options and decided to try some “natural” remedies. I increased my exercise, took fish-oil, and forced myself to be social on days when I wanted to stay home to myself. Initially this worked, but I failed at maintaining the regimen and eventually found myself back at square one.

I confided in a friend of mine who was studying psychology at the time and she suggested that I try seeing a therapist. See a therapist? Me? Nah. I’m Black. Black folks don’t see therapists… so I thought.

The weeks following that conversation, things got worse. For the first time ever, I contemplated my existence and wondered if the world would be better without me. That was a scary thought. With that, I knew I needed professional help.

Using a free, confidential counseling service offered through my job (which, I had no idea existed prior to fully exploring my employer’s benefits site — I’d recommend others thoroughly read their employer’s benefit offerings), I was put in touch with a representative who would help me find the “right” therapist. She asked me some basic questions: location, availability, etc., and also asked if I had any specific needs or requests.

I had (what at the time seemed to be) an odd request. I wanted to see a Black or African American therapist. Now I know some people may thinking: “does race really matter?” Ehh… yea. And that’s ok. Let’s take a moment to embrace diversity and cultural differences:

After researching the terms “depression” and “Black” I realized that I was not alone in my struggle. There were others hiding and/or masking their depression, afraid of being seen as weak or crazy. I also learned that a lot of mental health professionals lack diversity and cultural sensitivity training. Had I gone to my first therapy session with someone who didn’t fully understand my background or culture, I can’t say that I would’ve gone back.

Of the hundreds of listings that the company had for therapists, there were a mere two African American providers in my area. Two. I decided to see the nearest one. After my second session I was formally diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Now this is the abbreviated, or “cliff notes” version of my experience with depression. There are many details that I’ve left out from my story, and I think it’s relevant to note that I’m still battling depression (treatment is a process), but hopefully you can begin to understand why becoming a Social Journalist and tackling the topic of Black mental health is something that I felt I HAD to do.

Me (center) and the others of the CUNY Social J Class of 2015. Photo Credit: CUNY.

Had you told me a year and a half ago that I’d be a Social Journalist, my response would have been a blank-stare. But when I discovered and applied to the Social Journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism late last year, it just felt right. Working in artist development for several years, I found that I had a keen interest in social media and writing. I’d also picked up a few skills along the way (Wordpress, HTML, graphic design — to name a few) which I quickly learned are incredibly beneficial to journalists today.

And just a few months before being accepted into the program I had been brainstorming ways to share my mental health experiences, so I knew right away what community I wanted to serve. I know this all seems rather scattered. But somehow I managed to connect the dots and things came together beautifully. This is by far one of hardest things I’ve done (i.e. juggling J-school with a full-time job for a year) in my life, and yet it’s my proudest accomplishment.

So now that you know how and why Black & Blue Me came to be, you must know that the topic of Black mental health is much bigger than me or any single individual. For this reason, up until now, unless specifically asked, I’ve kept my personal story and experience with mental health separate from this project. I share it now, because today I graduate, and I want people to understand that this is just the beginning. This is something that I’ll continue working on. I didn’t do it for the grades and I didn’t do it for another degree. I did it for my community — the Black community.

Enough about me… here’s the short & sweet version of how it went down

To begin, I spoke with several professionals and advocates specializing in Black mental health issues, including Terrie M. Williams and Asha Tarry, to help determine which issues are most prevalent within the community. The three key issues that were determined to be plaguing our community are: stigma, preventionary vs. reactionary dealing of issues, and treatment and healthcare issues disparities. I also learned that depression and PTSD are the most prevalent mental illnesses within the Black community.

After identifying these issues with the experts, I began discussing them with the most important people: the members of the community. Despite being a member of the community I didn’t parachute my way in, but instead I positioned myself as someone who was there to learn as if I knew nothing. Just because I’ve experienced a mental illness, doesn’t mean I can speak for the entire community. I listened, observed, and built trust.

Because mental health is such a sensitive topic, I found it difficult to interact with the community IRL. After countless searches, I couldn’t find a AA-style meeting for Black mental health. And camping out at a mental health agency or clinic, per traditional journalism-style, just felt intrusive. So, I took to social media.

The most useful tool for finding members of my community was, and continues to be Twitter. More specifically, Black Twitter. Through keyword (e.g.“Black mental health”) and hashtag (e.g. #Blackmentalhealth) searches I’ve been able to directly interact with members of my community by retweeting and liking their Tweets, as well as directly engaging in conversations with them. This method has allowed me to organically build a following.

After numerous interactions with members of the community, I learned that, apart from seeking treatment, being able to share one’s story and being able to be exposed to the stories of others, is most beneficial to improving the issues related to Black mental health. With this, I decided to build a website that allows users to find the treatment or resources they need, and share their stories and experiences.

The website and branding took many iterations. But as I built it, I checked in with member of my community, constantly asking for feedback. Ultimately I was able to build a site that suits their needs. I’m continuing to take suggestions and feedback and make revisions as needed.

My goal is for to be the first and only community-driven site for all things related to Black mental health. In January (I’m giving myself the rest of December off) I intend to continue collecting stories, market the site, and create more content, including a new episode of my podcast called “Our Stories in Light.” I’m hoping to also partner with mental health professionals, advocates, and/or organizations to create additional content and to host relevant events for the community.

Things I learned, and Final Key Takeaways and Tips for Emerging Social Journalists

  • Partner, seek help: For me, the experts of my community are the mental health professionals and advocates. They were the easiest to find and engage with. By connecting with them I was able to identify key issues within the community and make several connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise made myself.
  • Listen: Listen to your experts and most importantly to the members of your community. Despite being a member of my own community (i.e. a Black woman battling depression), there’s still a lot that I don’t know about my community. I’m only one of many of a diverse group of people — everyone has their own unique experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions: Even though mental health is a sensitive topic, you can’t be afraid to question members of your community. Also, it’s important to ask the proper questions in order to fully understand the issues that the community is facing and to customize the content that you’re generating for them.
  • Revise and reiterate: As a social journalist, you’re creating content for the community, which means that you have to be willing to make changes and edits as necessary. While creating my website, it was imperative that I shared it, at its various stages, with members of the community. Individual input was necessary to determine if I was on the right track and creating what the community needed.
  • Keep in touch: Keeping in touch with members of your community and any partners you’ve worked with is critical to your success. It not only shows that you are genuinely invested in your community, but it builds trust and people will begin to identify you as a go-to source or expert of your community.
  • Be transparent: Be transparent about everything. Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. What you know. Who you’ve talked to. What research you’ve done. Be explicit with everything that you do. Transparency is key to building trust.
  • Don’t be discouraged by the numbers: Qualitative numbers are a great reflection of your impact, but true impact lies within human impact. The feedback and direct interaction with a single individual of your community is much more impactful than 1,000 page views.

And now, a word from the community

(Still trying to master how to upload my videos here. Oy.)