Let’s talk about depression and anxiety.
When my nephew was a itty bitty baby, he cried a lot. Almost always. Mostly for no reason at all except that he wanted attention which I guess, as a baby, he’s entitled to. In my attempt to be a Cool Auntie and a responsible older person, when he had his crying episodes I’d try to make him laugh. I’d dance, sing, make weird voices and silly faces, pick him up and spin him around… I’d do anything I could think to do to turn his little frown upside down. Because that’s what a caring person does when they see a sad baby: They try to make that baby happy.
This simplistic logic may have worked for an infant yet I still find myself applying the same strategies to my sad, anxious and depressed peers: If I can just get you to smile, I’ll have fixed all of your problems and have proven myself to be the caring-est person you know. But it’s not that easy nor should it be. As we transition into our adulthood, our triggers are going to become more complex and our solutions need to go deeper than just forcing smiles on our faces.
But that’s what we do anyway, isn’t it? We fake it til we make it. While our culture is slowly becoming more tolerant of mental illness, there’s still so much stigma associated with depression and anxiety. I see so many “inspirational” images on my Instagram feed saying things like “You’re allowed 5 emotional minutes a day then you gotta be gangsta” or “Train your mind to see the good in every situation” or “Pain is just weakness leaving the body” or “What Would Beyoncé Do?” Well, I’d hope if Beyoncé was feeling sad, she’d let some tears flow and not keep dancing around like an emotionless Illuminati robot. Why do we pressure ourselves to pretend to feel happy and powerful when we don’t? Isn’t that crazy?
If I’ve learned anything from that too-colorful Disney movie Inside Out, it’s that we need to be nicer to our imaginary friends and that we need to respect our feelings of sadness, not to ignore them. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18 percent of the US population suffers from depression. It’s the most common illness in the country! While there’s barely any research into how many of those people are women or people of color, I’m willing to bet that I know at least one person silently suffering in a society that does not validate their emotions and experiences. That’s not okay.
This is all coming from someone who herself has not had long-term bouts of depression nor have I ever been diagnosed with anxiety. I don’t know the feeling of bursting into inexplicable and uncontrollable tears nor have I ever faced days when I just couldn’t get out of bed for reasons that had nothing to do with illness or laziness. I’m not an expert on how to deal with people who are suffering. But I know I don’t want to be another person who tells my depressed friend to just “smile” or “get out of the house” or “pray” or “meditate” or “get laid” and hope they’ll feel better.
These Band-Aid solutions are not going to cut it anymore. In this Trump/police brutality/student debt era we’re living in, there is a lot to be truly anxious about and that anxiety can manifest itself in dangerous ways. Taking the necessary steps to understand and care for our mental health will help us survive our sad days and our happy ones.
We need more comprehensive mental health care and education from professionals who are trained in the nuances of Black and Brown experiences. And we need more friends and family to be okay with simply being present for the sad person in our lives without trying to change them or worse, dismiss them as being weak, unfaithful or dramatic.
My nephew is four years old now. Walking and talking and forming opinions. He still cries and gets upset often. Only now, he boldly announces to whoever is listening: “I’M SAD!” or “I’m NOT happy!” after which he marches off to the nearest corner and sits with his arms crossed. And, being the Cool Auntie that I try to be, I don’t stop him or punish him. I just hang out nearby and let him know I’m there for him and that I’m watching him to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. I know I can’t always fix whatever it is that’s making him upset. But I check in with him so he knows, when he’s ready, he can talk to me or we can just go back to watching an episode of PJ Masks.
Be as #UnapologeticallyEmotional as y’all need to be.