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Black Americans face a complex set of challenges as they try to maintain their mental health. On top of universal issues like depression, stigma and economic stress, they deal with racism, health inequities and the systemic effects of Jim Crow segregation every day. The Florida Courier, The Weekly Challenger, RoyalTee Magazine and WUSF Public Media created this series to highlight the stories of Black Floridians seeking emotional healing and wellness, and to provide resources for those needing support. This collaboration is a part of the national America Amplified community engagement initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It's OK to not be OK: How Black millennials and Gen Z are coping with mental health

Group of people laughing, listening to a speaker
Janelle Richardson
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Courtesy
The Creatology music conference was designed to give artists a safe space to show their creativity without bias.

Young Black adults have been unlearning so-called toxic traits, one of which is refusing to seek help with mental health issues.

Tampa singer, songwriter and vocal coach Janelle Richardson is no stranger to dealing with mental health conditions.

The 32-year-old has been dealing with anxiety since she was a teenager. Triggers last year led her to contemplate suicide and experience back-to-back anxiety attacks.

“I felt alone and not heard until I went to therapy,” said the University of South Florida graduate who goes by the stage name J’Nelle.

Like many Black families, speaking openly on the topic was nearly non-existent for Richardson, who is of Trinidadian descent. And it wasn’t that her parents mistrusted the doctor, they just didn’t think anything was wrong with her.

“My family would say things like, ‘You will be fine,’ said Richardson, about expressing her anxiety to her Caribbean family.

A familiar Black generational old mantra is, “What goes on in the home stays in the home.”

“This led to self-doubt, which led to depression, which made me limit myself and what I could do,’’ said Richardson, whose career requires her to constantly be in the spotlight as a musical artist and motivational speaker.

Janelle Richardson smiling into the camera
Daylina Miller
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WUSF Public Media
Janelle Richardson's career requires her to constantly be in the spotlight as a musical artist and motivational speaker.

Hesitant to get help

Tallahassee entrepreneur Ashlee Flete, 26, shared the same initial feelings as Richardson about mental health outreach. The Florida A&M graduate and single mother of one has lived with anxiety, depression, and anger issues.

She also has dealt with anger issues and sought to find better methods to control her emotions. Although she acknowledged the need for help, she was hesitant at first to seek it.

“People make you feel like you’re crazy if you go to therapy,” Flete said. “What made me seek a therapist is just not feeling like myself. I think I was really getting to the point where I was very quick to anger.”

Flete referred to her first therapy experiences to “‘touching a doorknob,’’ unsure of what awaits on the other side. The Miami native decided to seek out therapy after she lost her job.

“But I had finally touched the doorknob,” Flete related, “and once I did that, it was game over.”

Generational mistrust 

Mental Health America reports that over 7 million Black people have experienced a mental illness in the past year. And according to a 2022 study from the University of Houston, the highest rate of death among Black Americans are between the ages of 25 and 34.

While more are seeking help, negative stigmas remain in the Black community that steer some to avoid it all together.

“You cannot heal what you don’t reveal,” said Tallahassee marriage and family therapist Jane Marks. “If you cannot put language on a situation, there is no way you’re going to be able to take care of it. We all deserve to be happy.”

Marks has been practicing for 53 years and says there always has been a hesitancy in the Black community to seek mental health services.

Jane Marks sitting on a red chair and smiling, wearing a red jacket
Courtesy
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Jane Marks

“You have to go back culturally and look at what’s in the history of families,” Marks explained. “When you think about it, people of color historically have had so much adversity in their lives so they are used to muscling through. You muscle through. You get through whatever hardships are in your life.”

There is the continued Black distrust of the medical community, notably because of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932.

Hundreds of Black men were monitored – but not treated – as part of the Tuskegee experiment. There also was the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Maryland resident, whose cells were used in 1951 for major research without her knowledge or consent.

The mistrust has continued with COVID-19 vaccinations. As of July 2022, nearly two years after the pandemic began, the CDC reports that white Americans are still 1.4 times more likely to be vaccinated than Blacks.

“If you did seek treatment, people were afraid of labels, afraid that they would be deemed ‘crazy’ and or that you were weak,” Marks said about Blacks’ reaction to medical care in the past. She added that 50 years ago, people with serious mental health issues were hospitalized, which also generated fear.

“Why would you go and see someone if there was a possibility that you perhaps could be sent to Florida State Hospital,” she said of the psychiatric hospital that has operated in Chattahoochee since 1947. “So you stayed away and found resources where you could. Now we have generations of people who have not had access, or there’s been systematic racism that has nurtured the stigma because you don’t want to be labeled.”

Putting self-care first 

But is this a fear African Americans have to live with today?

Both Black millennials, adults born between 1981-1996, and Gen Z , those born between 1997-2012, are starting to be known as generational curse breakers.

Young Black adults have been unlearning so-called toxic traits, one of which is refusing to seek help with mental health issues.

Mama’s “What goes on in the house, stays in the house’’ and grandma’s “pray it away’’ mantras are no longer cutting it. Many minority millennials find themselves going to the therapy for the sake of the generation they are raising up behind them.

“A lot of me going to therapy is because of my daughter,” Flete said, reflecting on her role as a mother to her 3-year-old daughter. “Learning, unlearning, you know, certain things that I didn't like, and learning new ways to go about things I don't like, especially as a mom.”

We all deserve to experience peace and we all deserve to experience a sense that the world is OK. We don’t have a lot of control over what’s going on, but we certainly need to have the opportunity to make our world a better place.
Jane Marks

Black therapists and psychologists also are using social media outlets such as TikTok and Instagram to provide informational posts and videos.

Popular hashtags such as #blackmentalhealth and #blackmentalhealthmatters have emerged, and mental health professionals are actively participating in social media challenges to get their points across.

Social media also is a way Black people who aren’t comfortable seeing a professional can get answers about their mental health.

Other outlets include the national organization Black Millennials Mental Health (BMMH).

Marks suggests people seek help when several symptoms start to become repetitive after six to eight weeks.

“It could be a lot of things. It could be dysphoria [a profound sense of dissatisfaction], it could be sleep disruption, it could be irritability,” Marks said. “It is a change in your personal function. That’s when it’s time to see someone.”

Marks is passionate about encouraging people, especially young people of color, to give themselves a fighting chance.

“We all deserve to experience peace and we all deserve to experience a sense that the world is OK. We don’t have a lot of control over what’s going on, but we certainly need to have the opportunity to make our world a better place.”

Finding Dr. Right

Flete suggests people “date around” for a therapist, to find the right fit. It took her three tries before she found the therapist who works for her.

The therapist she has now is invested and in tune with her self-care progress, Flete related.

Ashlee Flete sitting on a chair
Ashley Flete
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Courtesy
Ashley Flete

“She was giving me homework off rip,” Flete said about when she first started seeing her therapist. “She started off with breathing exercises. She laid out the plan and everything how it was all gonna go.”

And although she has journaled before, Flete said going to therapy has taught her to journal with purpose.

“With the way that she [her therapist] taught me I'm like, OK, we think about the day. You recap it. What are the feelings?

Flete said she reflected on the questions she asks herself each time she pens a new entry. “Why have you felt those feelings? Where did those feelings come from?’”

Richardson consults with her therapist weekly and appreciates the transparent space they are able to share.

“It was someone that could hear me out without placing judgment,” Richardson said. “Someone to say, it’s OK. You can get up and try again. She taught me coping mechanisms and strategies to work through my anxiety. I learned to live in the moment.”

However, the most challenging hurdle could be doing the work. Opening up your deepest and most traumatic thoughts to strangers could be unnerving. But Richardson suggests not to be afraid to ask questions to those you trust.

“Think about your future and how you would want it to turn out to be,” she said, reflecting on her own journey. “If you want progress, you have to take accountability for your actions and work towards progression.”

Self-reflection

Looking back on her own journey, Flete admits that self-reflection is the part of the therapy that people try to avoid because it's hard to do.

“Nobody wants to sit there and have to like crack themselves open and really like sit with their sh**,” she said. “But you have to in order to get to a better part, a better version of yourself.”

Flete said she has learned vulnerability, accountability, and how to manage her emotions from a selfless place.

“I've had to issue out apologies, I've had to swallow my pride and say I did wrong. Nobody wants to say that. But I said it because it was the right thing to say. It needed to be said, especially for the person that I'm trying to be,’’ Fleet shared.

Group smiling into the camera
Janelle Richardson
/
Courtesy
This past summer, to cope with her anxiety and help others with theirs, Janelle Richardson -- under her performer name J’Nelle -- launched her inaugural Creatology music conference in Tampa.

Helping others

Once the work is done, you’ll be able to have the strength to help others through their storms.

This past summer, to cope with her anxiety and help others with theirs, Richardson, under her performer name J’Nelle, launched her inaugural music conference in Tampa. She calls it Creatology.

The music conference was designed to give artists a safe space to show their creativity without bias. The standing-room-only, two-day event featured open mic events and paired music artists with known industry producers for one-on-one time. The finale was a panel discussion on mental health and music.

Richardson says oftentimes there are not spaces for artists to show their work in a place they feel comfortable.

“I wanted all artists to know that your work of art is valuable,’’ she noted.

One of J’Nelle’s popular singles, “Keep Going,” is a testimony to her mental health journey and inspires others.

“My trials and errors in life are lessons to help me keep going,” she said about her song. “It may be challenging, but I know that I can’t give up on myself.”

Kisha Wilkinson is a reporter for RoyalTee Magazine. This story is part of a collaboration with RoyalTee Magazine, the Florida Courier, The Weekly Challenger, and WUSF Public Media. It also is a part of the national America Amplified community engagement initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


GETTING HELP

Crisis resources

  • If you are or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 at 800-273-TALK (8255).
  • To connect with a trained crisis counselor and receive free 24/7 crisis support through text message, text NAMI to 741-741.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)

Other resources

American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health Facts (2017) – Use of Services and Disparities

  • Rates of mental illness in African Americans are similar to those in the general population. But disparities exist regarding mental health care services.
  • Only one-in-three African Americans who need mental health care receive it
  • African Americans are also more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists).

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