The Witness

It’s Not Always Black Boy Joy

CJ Quartlbaum

“Working class people don’t get depression. Depression is a luxury of wealth and free time…it’s something rich people made up because they were bored and wanted to add some adversity to their lives.”  -The Carmichael Show

I laughed so hard when I first heard this line on one of my favorite gone-too-soon sitcoms. While these words are easy to laugh at, they strike very close to home. Mental health is a topic that has been stigmatized for far too long within black and brown communities. It’s time to change that.


In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Justin Moyer explores the tragic events and effects of two black teens who committed suicide. Here are some of the article’s staggering highlights:

  • Nationwide, suicides among black children under 18 are up 71 percent in the past decade, rising from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016. In that same period, the suicide rate among all children also increased, up 64 percent.
  • Rheeda Walker, a psychology professor at the University of Houston, said her research into African-American mental health shows possible links between perceived racism and suicide among black youths. And the perception that suicide isn’t a black problem makes it difficult for parents, teachers, and others to spot warning signs.

One of the aspects that kept sticking out to me is the notion that black people don’t seek treatment for mental health issues. The in-house perception has often been this isn’t a problem for black folk, and yet the numbers would say otherwise. With suicide and depression rates rising, this is an issue we must take seriously.  

Is This Us?

First, let’s fight against the idea that mental health isn’t an issue for our community.

I believe this goes back to slavery. Were slaves depressed? Did they experience anxiety? They certainly did but slaves could never miss a day of work because of a panic attack. That would result in their death. When you have 12 generations of people living and working under those conditions, they will have undoubtedly passed the “get up and soldier on” work ethic to their descendants.

When I was a child, my father used to say he didn’t have time to be sick because bills still had to get paid. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. We have lived in conditions in this country that have forced us to work no matter what. There is no time to deal with ailments you cannot see. Ailments of the mind, heart, and soul are not always easy to identify and therefore can be dismissed. In a society and job market that can quickly replace youthe sentiment is often: if you can walk, you can work.

African-Americans are suffering from a collective PTSD that has never been addressed. The first 12 generations of black people built this country as slaves. Subsequent generations of 100 years were terrorized by Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and segregation. There was a brief glimmer of hope during the Civil Rights era and then there was more redlining, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline…it just doesn’t end.

And when have we taken the time to deal with the issues and conditions that keep us depressed, anxious, and sleepless? It is only the grace of God that we are still here, still functioning, and still exhibiting all types of black excellence. This truth echoes what Fannie Lou Hamer once said: “Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

Been There, Still there

I didn’t have an easy childhood. There was a lot of trauma and a lot of pain. It all converged on me when I turned 27. I spent the first 6 months of that year in a dark place. I was sad, moody, and melancholy all the time. I felt like a failure and was completely unmotivated. I was experiencing a crisis of life.

At 29, I started going to counseling. I knew I needed a type of help I would not be able to muster myself. One of the hardest parts of the journey is when I would share this decision with others who I knew were just as broken as I am or worse. Their responses were often: “Oh that’s good; you need that” or “I don’t need to do that, I know I’m okay.” 

Many of us subscribe to the idea that if someone seeks counseling or help, they are broken and none of us want to to be seen as broken.

The truth is we are all broken. We are born into a world marred by sin and it feels as though people who look like us bear the brunt of that sin. It is okay to admit your brokenness. In fact, it is liberating. Admitting your brokenness keeps you from having to perpetuate the facade that you’re okay all the time. You no longer have to wear a mask of strength, constantly pretending everything is alright when it isn’t.

In counseling, for the first time in my life, I had space to simply talk about what I was feeling and going through. I don’t say this as though counseling is a one-stop shop and can magically fix all of your issues but it can help.

I still have many days when I face the depression and anxiety that have plagued me for so long. There are nights I lie awake and days where I don’t want to get out of bed. Most days I am hampered by feelings of inadequacy and the temptation to find my worth in what I accomplish or have. There are broken relationships that have left wounds on my soul that I must contend with daily. I often go through seasons where I just feel down. I can’t explain it, I can’t name it, I just have a case of the blues.

Not Alone

The prophet Jeremiah is a good reminder that we are not alone in this struggle. He prophesied to a people who wouldn’t listen to him and often violently persecuted him. What an incredibly lonely call! The prophet Elijah, alone and weary, begged God to take his life. Although it is not widely written about, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also wrestled with severe bouts of depression. Shortly before his death, those closest to him were trying to encourage him to seek professional help. I can only imagine what he felt as he tried to bear the weight of black America on his shoulders.

Even our Lord was not immune from this. Luke 22:39-46 describes Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane just before he was arrested. As he is praying to the Father, his sweat became like great drops of blood. Jesus asked if there was another way but the one set before him. This sounds like a man who was anxious, maybe even afraid of what’s to come.

But we know Jesus followed through and bore the cross for us! Jesus died so that we might live.

In Matthew 11, Jesus invites us to rest in him. He tells us to place our burdens on him, to exchange our yoke for his. Jesus gives us rest even as we wrestle with anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear, and anything else. He gives us a peace that surpasses all understanding. It is on my hardest days that I am able to lean into this truth and remember that he is there.

Jesus doesn’t just invite us to rest in him though. He also gives us each other. There are about 49 “one another” commands in the New Testament that relate directly to life in the church. We need each other. Some of my greatest healing has come being around other believers. People who can speak truth into your life, remind you of who you are in Christ, and just straight up make you laugh when you need it are invaluable.  

We must cultivate authentic relationships in order for people to be able to speak into our lives and point us back to Jesus. Historically we haven’t always been willing and forthcoming with where we are mentally and emotionally. But one of the worst places you can be when depressed and anxious is alone. People are not built to solve the problems of life on their own. But in order to be there for one another, we have to know each other well.  

Let’s move beyond the wall of silence and admit our brokenness. Many of our churches have failed us in this regard because of the silent pressure to always be okay. When someone asks how you’re doing, the expected answer is good. We aren’t creating an atmosphere where it’s okay to not be okay.

We are in a place now where we can show true strength by being vulnerable. We can talk about where we are and what we are going through because the first thing we find out is that we are not alone in this.  

Check in with your friends and family to see how they’re doing. Seek to be an ear or shoulder to cry on. Invite people into your world and your struggles. Your deepest and darkest secrets are not for everybody but you can share with somebody.

This is a Real Issue

In recent years, I am seeing more people of color open up about what they are going through. Charlamagne and Desus Nice have both talked extensively about seeing therapists. There are new companies like TalkSpace that allow you to meet with a therapist via video chat. There are also churches that offer counseling services. That is my preferred option because I believe it’s better to have someone who can point you to and encourage you in the truth of the gospel.  

The good news is that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. I cling tightly to that truth and I pray you are able to as well.

God has instructed us to walk humbly and do justice. I firmly believe anything taking the lives of our people, whether it be literally or figuratively, is a matter of justice. Here is more good news: Our God is a God of justice. He has not left us to contend with this alone.

Many of us will not overcome the issues we face. Some of us, like Paul, are going to have this thorn in our sides for as long as we walk this earth. 

This does not have to stop us from living full lives in Christ. My prayer is that as we learn what it means to address our mental health, we would also learn the breadth, length, depth, and height of the Father’s love for us.

I want to see us all strong, healthy, and excellent. Our brokenness doesn’t define us. Christ defines us and may that knowledge lead to openness, healing, and self-care.

To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging 741741.

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