I know I've asked myself this question a time or two before. Am I mentally okay? This is a illness that isn't talked about much in the African American community. We often laugh it off or quickly change the subject when friends or family are talking about mental health issues and it's not okay.
It's not okay because so many of our friends and/or family members may have serious mental issues that they're going through on a daily basis. They may need someone to talk to and need to feel comfortable coming to family and or friends for help. I remember just last week reading rapper Kid Cudi's Facebook message to his fans. He wrote about his depression and suicidal thoughts, but he used the word ashamed. Why? Why must one be ashamed to say they're getting help? Getting help is a good thing. Recognizing this is a problem you can't fix is a good thing. If you're reading this, NEVER be ashamed of getting help! I've never had a mental health problem, but I've grown up with people who have. I never thought to treat them different. I was happy that they were feeling better and made sure to tell them if they ever needed me I was only one call away.
This does not need to be a secret. If someone came to you and told you they needed help would you know what to do? If not, I have some answers.
I was able to meet up with Alicia Cobb, a local Charlotte Therapist last week to ask her a few questions. Let's jump right into it.
Please tell my readers a little bit about yourself and background.
I recently relocated here from Los Angeles but grew up a military brat. Half of my childhood was spent on military bases and the other half in a small town in Tennessee with my grandmother. Fortunately for a very long time, I was sheltered from race because in the Army, your rank is what identifies you. For as long as I can remember however mental health was all around me in various settings. I aspired initially to be a nurse while attending Virginia Commonwealth University but it wasn’t until I started shadowing a Social Worker working at VCU Medical Center, that I totally changed gears and gravitated to human services. I discovered a profession where I could be a resource to people with long-term goals of some how helping my family as well. Howard University provided by Master of Social Work with a bonus prize of my first trip out of the United States to Haiti- where I learned a valuable lesson in the power of resilience. A large portion of my learning ground in therapy was split between working in New York, DC, Los Angeles and South Africa. A part of me wanted to be exposed to the largest cities with a fast paced environment to really get my feet wet. I am also a young adult fascinated with the idea of dream chasing. Currently, I reside in Charlotte and train clinicians in family therapy, teach part time in the School of Social Work at Simmons College and developing my private practice—Building Endurance.
What are a few ways we can do better in the African American community to help start the conversation and not feel ashamed?
Honestly, the best way to start the conversation without shaming and blaming each other, is to normalize mental health. One of my life goals is to decrease the stigma—it is okay for someone to be diagnosed with cancer, they usually elicit sympathy but for someone to develop voices or contract HIV unknowingly—they are viewed as the black sheep. Educating ourselves is also helpful in improving awareness amongst the African American community. Many mental health issues have a genetic component that people are totally unaware of, for example alcoholism and Schizophrenia. There is research that both can be identified in generational patterns within families. The third and most far-fetched idea is to just treat everyone with a healthy dose of empathy and respect. As we encounter each other, we have no idea what they are going through and I think it is more comfortable and easy for us to gossip or make fun of that person instead of showing some compassion and vulnerability by doing a basic check-in with them.
How does one know when they need help?
We always have to be in tune with ourselves. I joke with my sorority sisters and friends constantly about the power in taking yourself out on a date and knowing your own likes and dislikes. There is so much to be gleaned in spending time alone and doing things in a mindful way. Identifying what foods agree or disagree with you, how your body responds with a certain level of activeness, learning what things create a sense of calmness and what stimulates you. You will be more aware of when you need help when things feel off. Some red flags to look out for include a change in routine, restlessness, sleeping too much or too little, a change in appetite, feeling anxious without being provoked, excessive thoughts of hurting yourself, unexplained tearfulness and a host of others. Now, in life, things happen and we have an adjustment period whether that is a move, beginning or ending of a relationship, the loss of someone etc. The importance of knowing when you need help is also knowing what you are like on your best days or your baseline of functioning.
How can friends/family help those that come to them asking for help?
One of the greatest things a friend or family member can do when someone is asking for help is to listen. Hear the person out, keep an eye out for any talks about harming themselves or harming others because that may call for some reinforcement. Listening to the friend without judging or offering advice or ultimatums can go a long way. Another thing to do is ask what the friend needs. They usually can articulate whether they want you to help them make a decision or spend time with them or whatever other ways they like to be supported. If though, at anytime you feel the person is in danger or you feel you cannot manage the crises—definitely reach out to a mental health provider or emergency crises responder. Most cities provide a mental health service called Crises Mobile or Mobile Crises where a team addresses mental health concerns and if not 911 is a great option.
How do you treat someone that's having a breakdown right in front of you?
First, remain calm. They are already agitated or panicking and it is not helpful to escalate with them. Secondly, grab a glass of water or Kleenex depending on what their breakdown looks like. It is also helpful to try to do some deep breathing techniques just to help them calm down. If you do not know any, speak slowly to them, remind them that you are there to comfort them, that they are in a safe space. You may even be able to ask if they can describe what they need to help calm them down. You do not want to make any sudden moves or agitate them further—you want to aim at deescalating them, or getting them back to a state of calmness to identify what is going on. Lastly, if it is an emergency that you cannot manage, try to alert someone to assist whether it is a medical or mental health professional.
What is your website or phone number for those that may need your help?
My website is www.buildingendurance.com and number is (980) 288-5486. I also offer training on de-escalation, the signs of vicarious trauma for helping professionals, and the importance of self-care.
Why do you think African Americans in particular, don't really deal with mental health as a serious issue?
I think it is easier to pretend something does not exist than it is to address what is occurring. As humans, we want things to be as close to if not perfect, and we are concerned with how other people view us. As powerful as social media is in our lives currently, it can also be detrimental to people who constantly compare where they are in life to where other people are or to where they hope to be. I believe that if we embraced the idea that we all go through things and are all a product of our experiences, we really could create a safer community for each other to lean on.
Have you dealt with mental health issues or know of someone that needs help? Speak up. Don't be afraid or ashamed of what you or someone close to you is going through.