Mental Health Awareness in the Black Tech Community

May is mental health awareness month and because this is such an important issue, Tech While Black is participating to highlight key facts about mental health. This is a topic that I can not only relate to personally, but also strongly feel needs to be discussed more within the black tech community.

It is important to stress that mental illness affects everyone, regardless of race or background. In the technology industry, there is a high-level of stress and suicides are not uncommon. While these issues are universal, there are conditions specific to the black experience that can escalate the stress and anxiety being experienced. Untreated, this can lead to hospitalization or death as in the case of Joseph Thomas.

Thomas was a Uber software engineer who committed suicide and his family believes that the racism and stress he experienced on the job contributed to his suicide. I don’t know a lot about this case nor am I a psychologist, so I won’t speak more about this other than to say that I hear stories like Thomas’ all too often.

Being a black engineer in a workplace that is predominantly white adds to the stress and anxiety that someone experiencing mental illness feels. Many people attending Tech While Black activities have reported experiencing this stress. Personally, I experienced one of my most extreme psychotic breaks while working in conditions similar to what Joseph Thomas worked in. In fact, the resulting isolation and depression is what encouraged me to begin working in the tech diversity and inclusion space.

Stories like Thomas’ are what drives me to continue to build supportive community, to promote mental health awareness, and highlight the related issues. Mental health awareness is about more than learning how to get help, but also understanding how to give help and be supportive. Let’s examine some key facts about mental health to be aware of.

Mental health is an essential part of overall health and well-being

“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.“ — mentalhealth.gov

Most people understand that physical fitness is important and have experienced a medical illness. Many overlook the fact that mental health is an essential component of your overall health. In fact, four of the seven dimensions of wellness are related to mental health (social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual). The remaining three either have an impact on mental health and/or can be affected by mental health (environmental, occupational, physical).

For many people who live with a mental illness, the illness impedes other wellness areas and limits the capacity to function. A person displaying mental illness symptoms may seem perfectly healthy and in excellent physical fitness, yet be unable to complete basic tasks such as eating, sleeping, bathing, etc.

I am part of several online support groups for adults diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It’s a common sight to see a post where someone announces that they managed to shower or eat a meal and that post will receive hundreds of comments congratulating them and encouraging them to be proud of this major achievement.

Fortunately, like many medical issues, people diagnosed with mental illness can get better and live healthy, fulfilling lives. One meal turns into two meals, two meals three, and so on. Eventually showers are taken daily and housework is completed. Eventually, there is a return to normalcy.

Mental illnesses are common and treatable

While 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness, for those in the black community, mental illness tends to be exacerbated by factors specific to the condition of being black in America.

Black people of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Black adults are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress, including feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Black people living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress black people living above the poverty line.

Despite the higher rates of mental illness in the Black community, the related stigma and judgement prevents many from seeking treatment or providing adequate support for those displaying symptoms. Spreading awareness and providing education about mental health in the black tech community as well as the overall black community is imperative.

Not everyone experiences the symptoms of mental illness the same

Just because your neighbor’s son had a psychotic break and behaved dangerously, doesn’t mean the person you work with who has been diagnosed with mental illness will do the same. In that same vein, just because someone appears to be high-achieving and functioning normally, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t coping with the symptoms of mental illness.

While mental illnesses may be common, the way that people experience them are not the same and can be related to a variety of factors. Income, environment, and support network are just a few factors at play. The symptoms can be experienced differently for each person; the therapy and medications that are provided for treatment may be experienced differently as well.

This means that while you can get some good information from online websites and books that you’ve purchased to help you identify and understand symptoms, it is important to seek help from a qualified therapist for proper diagnosis and treatment.

It’s important to understand early symptoms of mental illness

While everyone experiences these symptoms differently, there are some common symptoms that stand as markers to help identify and diagnose mental illness. Knowing these common symptoms can be the difference that saves a life, especially in someone who has been undiagnosed.

Understanding early symptoms can be great for identifying mental illness and getting support. Educate yourself on the early symptoms and be mindful. Make a checklist and go through it often, at least once a month but a I recommend a two-week schedule if you suspect that you may be experiencing symptoms related to mental illness. This will help identify patterns in your behavior.

Speak up early and educate people in a compassionate, judgement-free way

Symptoms from mental illness can happen suddenly, but in many cases there is a buildup to the mental breakdown that has gone unnoticed or ignored. The checklist discussed in the last section can help avoid this but isn’t much help when you need to encourage someone else to seek mental treatment.

If you suspect that someone has an undiagnosed illness or is experiencing psychological distress, you may need to speak up so that they can seek help. It’s important to do this in a way that doesn’t make them defensive or cause their symptoms to worsen. This won’t be easy, educate yourself first and learn how you can be supportive before approaching them. Avoid blaming the person and be respectful. This isn’t the time to talk about any wrongs that you feel were done to you as a result of their perceived illness.

You may need to visit a local mental health facility or research online to learn more before approaching them, but the takeaway here is that, not only is it okay to encourage a loved one to seek treatment but it may be necessary to do so. When done with love, understanding, and respect, This can be the difference between them continuing to spiral out of control and them getting help

Identifying symptoms and warning signs early can help provide effective treatment

The symptoms of mental illness can range from mild symptoms to severe and life-threatening. It’s important to recognize these symptoms before they become life-threatening. This not only increases the effectiveness of the treatment, but reduces the harm caused.

When people struggle with maintaining their mental health, they can develop habits and behaviors that can worsen their symptoms. These behaviors can be disruptive, destructive, and lead to mental crisis. Such behaviours help avoid or cover up the symptoms while often doing double-duty as the symptoms themselves. For example, a common symptom is excessive and irresponsible spending beyond what is typical for that person. This could manifest as a shopping spree or large purchase with the goal of relieving depression.

Remember, we’re looking for a pattern of behavior here. One shopping spree or unusual purchase doesn’t automatically mean there is something to be worried about. That being said, many people tend to to seek help for mental illness only once it has progressed to being so severe and damaging that the person can no longer function as they normally would. Early identification and treatment can prevent the loss of finances, employment, relationships, and more.

In the quest for success in the tech industry, we must keep ourselves and each other mentally healthy. This means being aware of and looking out for the signs of mental illness, then seeking treatment early on.

Mental illness is an important topic that needs more attention in discussions relating to the black tech community. It is not enough to get more black professionals employed and in leadership positions. It is not enough to have more black tech startups. It’s definitely not enough to call for increased hiring at predominantly white companies if the working conditions contribute to mental distress and the suicide of black tech professionals like Joseph Thomas.

The work being done and the communities being built need to include education and support for mental health to equip black tech professionals, leaders, and professionals with the skills to cope with and overcome mental illness that could impair our ability to succeed.

Resources to Learn More

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