It is Not Just White People Shit. My Frustration with the Mental Health Conversation

I wrote this piece in October after learning about Kid Cudi checking himself into rehab. I shared it with a few trusted friends then buried it. After learning about Kanye’s recent episode and the heightened awareness on mental health (hello Election Day trauma), it only felt right to share this with my community. I am sure many people are feeling similar frustrations. I am curious about how these moments play a larger role in the conversation on mental health, community support and the stigma of therapy within communities of color.

As a fan and avid supporter of Kid Cudi, I was not shocked to hear about his struggle. From his first mixtape on, there have been clear and loud signs that Cudi was fighting an uphill battle (i.e. Sky Might Fall, Pursuit of Happiness, Man on the Moon, King Wizard--I can keep going.) I wonder--where was his team throughout all of this? Where were the people who were supposed to be checking in on him and ensuring he was okay? Where were the people encouraging him to seek help? Are these the same individuals who fed his need for self-medicating as opposed to receiving treatment? Not that it is any one person’s fault or that someone needs to be his protector, but to be in a position like his, you would hope there were people around him who cared about his well-being. It is concerning that his struggles made the larger community write him off as “weird” or the “outcast” within the hip-hop industry as opposed to a man who is asking to be seen, heard and helped. Given recent events with Kanye--I echo the same sentiment. Kanye has been (literally) screaming for help since the death of his mother and we consistently wrote him off as crazy, arrogant, attention-seeking...Kanye’s “community” let him down.

I realize this is particularly triggering for me because I have always had a difficult time understanding the larger concept of mental health, who it impacts, how it is misunderstood and how people who need the most assistance (which can come in many forms) often do not receive it. When I was 8 years old, my older cousin, Kyle, committed suicide. It is something my family does not talk about much. It is an event that has informed the trajectory of my life in many ways and it was not until the last few years that I realized my cousin was ill. I wonder if he ever sought or received treatment. I have a bipolar sister. Watching her illness develop throughout the course of my life has been incredibly difficult. I have watched my mother try time and time again to assist and help to manage my sister’s illness and often return with feelings of disappointment and defeat. I spent most of my life with the impression that my father was a lazy alcoholic and drug addict (not that I ever believed that). It was not until he died (alone) that I was able to name that he was ill. I recently spent time looking at photographs of him from my childhood and it was written all over his face. All of these instances were subjects my family often steered away from talking about. When I relocated back to my hometown of New Haven from Los Angeles, I spent the entire 2 years I was there quietly seeing a therapist of my own. It was within that experience I was finally able to process all of these events which were previously swept under a rug and started building a toolkit for dealing with my own intense anxiety issues and adjustment disorder sparked by the depression/self-doubt I experienced when I left LA (more on that another time.)

I taught high school while living at home and this experience heightened my awareness to the stigma around people of color and mental health. I was always incredibly candid and open with my students about the importance of seeking help when they need it and finding people who they believe they can confide in and learn from. I taught at a rigid, mismanaged and supposedly well-intentioned (white savior) charter school. My students had limited space to be individuals or to even think for themselves. Our population of students came from two of the largest “inner city” communities in Connecticut and many of them held a lot of trauma from various events in their personal lives or issues affecting their community (violence, murder, etc.). Our school never addressed anything going on in the personal lives of our students. Many of my students found solace in my classroom and comfort in talking with me about what was going on. Why?

  • “Because only people with problems go see the social worker.”
  • “Only crazy people talk to therapists.”
  • “I’m not weak, I’m not a bitch. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
  • “You’re different Blake. You’re more like a mentor and you know what we go through.”
  • “You don’t analyze us. You’re just real and actually try to help us out, not just sugar coat things to make us feel better.”

My only solution was to pull tools I gained from my community of friends and provide my students with a space to facilitate each other’s healing. On a daily basis, a group of students would come to my classroom for lunch and hold space for each other. Sometimes we would listen to music and dance, sometimes we would play cards, sometimes we would vent about what was going on in our lives and help each other problem solve, sometimes we would write, sometimes we would cry, sometimes we would just hug each other and sit there in silence. For many of my students, my room (affectionately called the sanctuary) was the first place to go in a time of crisis. Maybe we wouldn’t talk, but for them it was easier than seeing someone with the title of a Social Worker. I have had teenage boys break down in my arms in fear that no one would understand them. Once, a student ran into my room after he lashed out at a teacher who reprimanded him while he was having a tough day processing his negative experience at court the day before. He immediately broke down in my arms while I was in the middle of teaching. What was incredible to witness was that he did not care that his peers witnessed him cry, he simply did not want to be in the presence of a social worker. He hit rock bottom and was too afraid to seek the help to get up. What could I offer more than a hug and extra tears? Another time, I had a student call me 11:30 at night after being held at gunpoint sitting on the front porch of a friend’s house--I could hear him shaking through the phone. He was fearful that if he talked to a Social Worker or therapist, his friends and would call him a bitch. These aren’t even moments these kids shared with their parents.

I say all of that to say, I am left frustrated and confused because I don’t know what the hell to do. It was incredibly hard to be both a teacher and an informal therapist. To hold these students darkest secrets and attempt to help them to heal and grow while teaching them a curriculum that ignores their struggle was the most challenging thing I have ever done. These are part of the reasons why I stopped teaching after my first year. I decided that I wanted to continue my study of poetry and expressive arts therapy as a means to better serve this particular population but I’ve recently released that may not help either. While checking in with one of my former students, I asked him his thoughts on therapy and mental health. Since he is a writer by nature, he shared that writing has always been his therapy. He brought to my attention that maybe black families don’t want their kids going to therapy and sharing family business with strangers. He told me the title of art therapist was even more bougie than just a regular therapist. Art therapy is some white people shit, he said. He believes students trusted me so much because we saw each other on a daily basis and I was genuinely invested in their lives. I wasn’t just a person to see when something was wrong. So what do I do?  I am stuck deciphering the best way to help serve these incredible students without compromising my personal mental health as well.

How do we encourage people of color to seek the help they need without the fear of being judged or shamed? When do we stop ignoring the signs? Do we always have to wait for the suicide attempt, the murder, the addiction, the abuse, the disappearance? When does it stop being white people shit and become an important conversation every family needs to have?