By Alexandra Oyebola
Anxiety. Psychologists would define it as persistent feelings of worry, fear or nervousness. As sound as this definition may be, I would like to give you my definition of anxiety from my own experience.
Anxiety was an inconvenient barrier that prevented me from being my complete self. Anxiety was a physical disadvantage. It was an uncomfortable racing heart in situations. Examples include when it was nearly my turn to speak while seated in a circle of people or right before opening an exam paper.
Anxiety was the loss of the joy out of the things I loved like flying because suddenly I felt and became afraid. Anxiety was irrational flashing images in my head of disasters happening to the plane whilst I was on it – a constant fear of destruction and harm for no reason. Anxiety is controlling, complicated and lonely but anxiety doesn’t have to win.
Irrational in its ways,
Stops you from saying what you really want to say,
Pushes close people away,
Disrupts you day by day,
But don’t give up today,
Things will eventually be okay
If I’m being honest, I didn’t know anxiety or even mental health was a thing. It wasn’t until I started my Psychology A-levels that I learnt about mental health and how real it was.
I remember one lesson in particular about anxiety; as the symptoms were being read out by my teacher, I thought ‘Wow, I’ve experienced that…and that…and that!’.
After the lesson, I was speaking to my closest friends at the time and I told them ‘Guys, I think I have anxiety’ (Disclaimer: Self-diagnosis isn’t the healthiest or advisable thing to do, don’t google it!).
I gave them examples of why I felt this way but they reassured me that I was just being ‘extra’, in other words being over the top, dramatic or interpreted at its worst, attention-seeking.
Not knowing any better, I agreed with them but inside I felt very misunderstood. For some reason my anxiety was most prevalent during my A-levels.
I can’t tell you the exact triggers but I remember having some of my worst experiences with anxiety during the course of those two years.
Looking back, I think the jump from secondary school to sixth form was too much for me to handle, something I’m sure a lot of people my age can relate to.
I wouldn’t talk about it much with the people around me. Mental health in the black community can be a stigma. I assumed my fears would sound irrational to those around me so I bottled it up and tried to overcome it by myself by praying, watching YouTube videos and reading more about it.
I was able to find some helpful tips such as taking deep breaths to slow down my speeding heart rate and writing about my experiences in a private journal. Life appeared to be on the up and perhaps I felt slightly more optimistic but as a whole, the truth is that dealing with mental health was quite lonely.
Maybe I am being dramatic
Maybe it’s not that deep
But sometimes I’m so overwhelmed,
that I struggle to sleep
But as I said, maybe it’s just not that deep
Misunderstood, my feelings I’ll learn to keep
Time had passed and I decided to study psychology at university. People around me were now more aware of my struggles with anxiety.
I can say with confidence that I was definitely in a better space and was overcoming my anxiety day by day. As I progressed in my degree, I had become more passionate about educating everyone and discussing mental health with people around me.
This was due to the fact that it was becoming more prevalent in young people around me, especially young black people. A lot of the time in African and Caribbean homes, mental health is a taboo subject so I always had to brace myself before diving in.
Mental Health and the Black Community
On many occasions, with love, I was told ‘You guys are too young to be dealing with mental health issues, what do you guys even go through that makes you depressed or stressed, are you paying bills? Do you have children?’.
This is an uninformed idea that somehow, in order to be dealing with mental health you need to have a good enough reason. Life can’t be that bad for young people right? It doesn’t seem normal for young people with no responsibilities to be dealing with this type of stuff. It just doesn’t make sense, so they would say.
But that’s the thing, mental illness is an illness, it won’t always make sense to everyone and it affects people differently. For example, a heartbreak cure for one may be watching ‘The Notebook’ with a tub of ice cream, whereas someone else with severe depression may be led to contemplating or even attempting suicide.
A harmless compliment about someone’s weight loss may be the exact trigger leading them to continue to struggle with bulimic behaviours.
Turbulence on a flight may have no effect on an individual but may cause someone with anxiety to have a panic attack (been there, done that).
The birth of a child is one of the happiest moments in 9 in 10 mothers while 1 mother is struggling with postnatal depression. Mental illness is subjective.
Furthermore, in the black community, the causes, symptoms and solutions for mental illness have sometimes been completely attributed to spirituality.
Findings from a study about African American men and women’s attitude toward mental Illness found that their attitudes suggested that they were not open to acknowledging psychological problems and would prefer religious coping to seeking out mental health services (Ward et al, 2013).
This notion suggests that mental illness is solely based on spiritual reasons and can be used as a way to reject mental health services available. As someone who is a devoted Christian, this was something I struggled to get my head around.
So what do I think now?
I will never deny that my faith was and is the biggest aspect of me overcoming my anxiety. Prayer, long talks with God, journaling, reading and a great church community were one of the many ways that helped.
However, I am also a strong advocate for mental health services available such as therapy and counselling and believe that they can be very successful in helping people dealing with mental health.
I wouldn’t limit the capabilities of God and say that mental illness cannot be healed with prayer alone or that it is completely wrong to think this way. However, I think denying the ability of mental health services to help and support people who need it can sometimes be a sign of ignorance or belief that both cannot co-exist.
It can also be dangerous. For example, denying someone access to medication in very extreme cases of mental illness or making them miss out on a particular treatment. It could’ve been exactly what that individual person needed to make a breakthrough or come out of the other side of a mental health crisis.
I do believe that there has been a slight shift in the black community. More celebrities, influencers and even people around me are being open about their struggles with mental health and are seeking help. We’ve got a long way to go but we’re definitely doing better than we ever have.
Progress we have to make
Mental stigma we need to shake
Let’s make mental services easier to take
This is for our health’s sake
As I bring my article to a close, I would like to offer some words of encouragement to anyone that is currently dealing with their mental health: Don’t stop. This is a journey. Some days will be great and some will be not so great but make sure you keep going.
Speak to your friends and family. They may not always understand but speaking about your struggles may be more beneficial than keeping it in.
Alternatively, if you’re reading this and have never had any problems or crises when it comes to your mental health, know someone who does or you’re just curious, I hope this has given you a deeper insight on what it can feel like and I hope we can all continue to be understanding and support each other. God bless.
Read more articles like this in our Experiences section.