The term ‘Mental Health’ has always felt limiting to me in describing my experience of being a Black woman living with a mental disorder.
The fluctuations of the intensity of my bipolar disorder is not just about the biological aspects of the disorder like how I can think in extremes, have an inflated self-esteem or have so many rapid thoughts that I can’t even seem to stop them. It’s also been about the environmental stressors that continue to be present living in a city, and a larger world that does not respect the humanity of Black women; let alone a Black woman with a mental disorder.
I noticed some time ago that my bipolar disorder was mostly aggravated by extreme stress. I had my first symptoms of bipolar disorder when I was working at a job where I experienced daily jabs and micro aggressions from mostly white men. My first manic episode that landed me in the hospital was a week after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for murdering Trayvon Martin; an event that spun my mind out of control and made me angry at the world. I experienced the lows of depression when I was overburdened with work and school, trying to maintain a roof over my head and finish my studies so I could ‘make something of myself.’
When, the stressors of the outside world were low my mental well-being was much better. Seems obvious right? Sometimes I wondered if I lived in a world that was not oppressive, if I lived in a space that respected my humanity, would my mental wellbeing be different? Would the intensity of my bipolar disorder be the same? Or would it even exist at all.
The mental health approach as it stands places the weight on the individual to change how they think; how they move about in the world to reach the goal of having optimal mental well-being. I believe that the approach must be different. The approach must be to eradicate the external stressors that negatively impact mental wellbeing. If Black women were not experiencing so many external stressors in their families, their communities, and through institutions, I could imagine that the state of our mental well-being would be drastically different.
Mental wellness is a holistic approach that I believe looks at mental wellbeing as more than how one thinks about the world, but how the world is full of stressors that impact us greatly; especially for those who are a part of communities that are constantly under attack. The freedom that I seek to have is bound up in my mental well-being. Mental slavery to me is not just about what was intentionally put in place for Black people to not see value in themselves; it is also about the harmful conditions that lead to constant mental distress. Conditions that not just kill the body and the spirit, but slowly kill the mind as well.
Sista Afya uses an approach of mental wellness to share information and resources that can improve the mental well-being of Black women. Through providing information that can help to reduce mental stressors and creating a space that centers, supports, and celebrates Black women while they are healing from mental distress, Sista Afya can be a part of charting a path towards mental liberation. I created Sista Afya not just to support Black women with mental disorders, but to challenge us to see being mentally well as more than an act of resistance. Living mentally well is a way to create a world where we can be free.