By Rowan Beckford
When I sat down to begin writing this piece, I asked one of my brothers for his opinion on the experience of Black people and mental health services; he promptly responded that they were non-existent. He was, of course, being hyperbolic. We have both benefitted, in some manner, from mental health services and are fortunate to have had access to not only that kind of care but the kind of attitudes that encourage the pursuit of those services. But his answer, as joking and exaggerated as it was, did not descend from thin air.
One tired joke (tired, though one intuits that the joke is lifted from the common and personal experiences of many) is the idea that therapy is the trifle of white people. Everyone else is to toughen up or manage in some other manner, such as the purported manner in which one is told that their mother or father, or some other relative, has managed to get by in life. The more dysfunctional they are, the better they have proved themselves as resilient—and without the help of a shrink.
Although, if I now recall my experience in public school, many of my peers, Black or not, have confided that the disapproval of their parents prevented them from seeking therapy or some other form of mental health service. None of us were particularly wealthy, which is to say we each represented some gradation of working-class American, or the children of working-class Americans, who couldn’t afford therapy, anyways, if we wanted to go or our parents would let us. So it might be said that therapy is also the trifle of the comfortably well-to-do.
Or perhaps of the decidedly middle-aged, too. If you can count your age on your fingers and toes, you have probably been told (or know someone who has been told) that you are too young for your struggles to be quite so agonizing. After all, what bills do you pay?
And, to be fair, the edicts of the naysayers comply perfectly well, rather too much so, with the images and understanding of mental health services prevalent in our culture (that is, the American culture). From Freud to present, the image of psychotherapy has been that of the white and middle-aged and well-to-do. And, even then, the patients of Freud were European or cosmopolitan, artists and poets, Old Money, people whose inner dramas were supposed to be of a different order. By the mid-century, in America, one could be all that but scandalized all the more for it (i.e., Robert Lowell).
At this point, it seems mental health services are for no one, a frightening thought especially if one has been tracking the pernicious unaccounted for increase of rates of mental illness and loneliness in America; and it is a distressing thought when you remember the casualties inflicted therein.
College might be the first place where many young Americans find themselves with access to mental health services and even encouraged to take advantage of them. But what is the student to do who suffers for it? In her essay, “Yale Will Not Save You,” Esmé Weijun Wang recounts and reflects on the disappointing, often infuriating, actions of Yale University regarding the mental health of its student body and local population. And this, by no means, is a problem especial to Yale. In one case, Michelle Hammer, a young woman who attended a different university, found herself in crisis; the actions of the university police department found her all but under the barrel of a gun—beaten, stepped on, pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and dropped off at a hospital.
This all sounds discouraging, even pessimistic, I know, but I say it to clarify—so that we are all vaguely on the same page—what broader and finer problems are facing us when we speak so lightly of mental health and take for granted the privilege of successfully getting that help. If we don’t have these conversations, which cannot help but be trying and uncomfortable for all parties, you and I will continue to suffer unnecessarily, and we will be counted lucky for our still being able to talk about it.
Photo: Alden Street Review