Reflections on Mental Health: A List
*I am an artist. I plan to make a living from my art, and so I fervently believe in giving credit where credit is due. I am writing this because I have to, because it has been clawing at the walls of my brain and bubbling over in the pits of my stomach for several days, and if I don’t write it, if I don’t say what I have to say in the way that I know to say it, nobody else will, and that would truly be a tragedy. But I must first give credit to Mumbi Kanyogo—my Queen, the Queen—because before I read her work, I didn’t know that published essays could come in the form of numbered lists and still tell a cohesive story, still convey a clear and crucial point.
My thoughts are not together. There was no outline for this. And so I am borrowing the Queen’s style and writing this as a list—but make no mistake. This is a story.
1. Coming to college means the opportunity to build life-changing and potentially life-long relationships, the chance to be and become a newer, fresher, (hopefully) better version of yourself, to grow, to glow, to build (and probably destroy) your empire several times over and emerge stronger, ready for war, ready for the world, all the while believing—both arrogantly and beautifully—that the world is not ready for you.
(Sometimes, though, college is a bottomless pit in which you are always falling, an endless sea in which you are always drowning, an eternal rigged game in which you are always losing.)
One night, a few weeks into my first semester at Duke, college meant sitting on the edge of my bed crying—literally the hardest that I can ever remember crying—and FaceTiming my best friend with absolutely nothing to say, just so that I wouldn’t feel so alone.
For whatever reason—maybe it was simple coincidence, maybe it was God and the universe presenting me with the gift of self-reflection—I was asked several times throughout my freshman year to reveal my “highest” and “lowest” points thus far in my college career. Fortunately, my “highest point” changed nearly every time I was asked—my first year was actually incredible, and I was blessed with too many “high points” to count. My lowest point, though, was always the same. I always came back to that night, because it was a feeling that I will probably never forget, one that has not been (and hopefully will never be) recreated; it felt like falling. Like drowning. Like losing. In a sea of new faces, of beautiful faces, with friends who were already beginning to feel like family not far out of reach, with the constant awareness of just how blessed I was to be at Duke University, popping, living my best life… I found myself consumed by loneliness, by fear and anxiety, by a sense of unworthiness for which I could find no feasible explanation.
It was my lowest point of freshman year, and probably one of my lowest points in life, and it left just as quickly and as suddenly as it had come. I was absolutely fine the next day.
2. I don’t know when I started looking for signs of mental illness in the people that I love.
3. One night over winter break, we sat parked in my driveway in our friend’s truck, him in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger’s seat, me in the back. She cried as she told us what was happening at home. She said, with the certainty of nightfall, of daybreak: “I think I’m depressed.” He rubbed her back. I sat, silent, because what do you say when the one who brings you light can no longer find light in herself? What do you say when internal darkness is given a name like “depression”?
I realize now how brave she was. Is.
I wonder if she still thinks it was depression. I wonder if she still thinks she is depressed. I wonder if that is something that I am supposed to ask.
4. If mental illness is not named, is it still mental illness?
5. How to Be a Good Friend to a Friend Who is Struggling When You Cannot Be Physically Present:
2. Whenever possible (and if they are up for it), FaceTime them instead of texting or voice calling. Facial expressions and body language often tell the truths that simple words hide.
3. Give them space. Let them hurt. Let them heal.
4. Send Insomnia Cookies when you are balling. Send love when you are not.
5. You do not get to judge their process.
6. Trust the process.
6. Any time mental health comes up at school, they say, I say: “Mental illness is real.” “Self-care is important.” “Make sure you’re taking care of yourself.” And it’s genuine, they mean it, I mean it, but they know and I know and we all know that very few Duke students are going to actually put their emotional stability and well-being before their grade point average and their extracurricular activities and their work-study and their summer plans and their networking and their social life and their…
Then they say: “We also have CAPS!” And while I cannot speak on Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services because I have never been, I have heard more than one story of people leaving feeling worse than they did when they arrived and of there being little to no sense of understanding or familiarity for students of color. I believe in speaking to professionals. I appreciate the fact that CAPS exists. I wonder if the administration thinks that the existence of CAPS is enough.
7. I don’t know when so many of the people that I love started showing signs of mental illness.
8. An individual’s “fall from grace” is not always sudden or constant. It doesn’t even always end with a jarring arrival at the bottom. “Up” days, weeks, and months exist.
I tell myself this and I believe it to be true, but I think I may be using it as an excuse. I feel as though I watched him get to this point. I genuinely don’t know what, if anything, I could have done to prevent it, to help him. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t know he was unhappy.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t angry at him, too.
I decide to love him through it.
9. How to Be a Good Friend to a Friend Who is Struggling When You Cannot Be Physically Present, Cnt’d:
7. You are not their savior.
10. The start of summer break blessed me with two glorious weeks at home with very few obligations, meaning: time to spend with family, to sleep, to see friends, to read, to write, and to finally finish watching 13 Reasons Why so that I wouldn’t be so out of the loop in all of the discussion and controversy surrounding the show.
I’m not going to give my opinions on the show here. But.
I reached episode 13, the last episode, the suicide scene, and I literally sat on my bed and said to myself: “I do not have to watch this woman kill herself.” I literally covered my eyes for the duration of that scene.
I am a black woman and I am tired of watching people die.
11. I am a black woman… of faith. At least two of the groups with which I identify—the black community and the Christian Church—tend not to acknowledge mental illness as the pandemic, as the beast that it is.
I believe in the innate resilience of black people. I also believe in (some) statistical facts: African-Americans are twenty percent more likely than the general population to experience mental illness (https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Diverse-Communities/African-Americans — fact check me if ya’ want to). The stigma surrounding the topic of mental illness in the black community is the reason why a young black woman experiences panic attack after panic attack, alone in her room, reluctant to get help, refusing to confide in her black mother because, of course, “mental illness is a white people thing.” It is the reason why she instead tells me about her experience, knowing that I have little to no fruitful aid to give her, yet I understand why she chose me as opposed to her mother. As opposed to a psychiatrist.
I believe in the power of prayer. It has always gotten me through. I also believe—and here, I must cite not only the Bible but an Instagram post by @the_silentme that reminded me of this crucial verse—that “faith, without works, is dead” (James 2:17). Regardless of whether or not they “ought to,” religious people suffer from depression, from anxiety, from obsessive-compulsive disorders, from post-traumatic stress, too. A person’s beliefs do not exclude them from or render them immune to mental illness.
That is the thing—nothing renders anyone immune to mental illness.
And maybe, in writing this piece, I found a certain solace that I had been missing. Maybe I put my mind to rest, I caused the raging tides in my stomach to subside.
But I know that there are people out there, people reading this, people who I love for whom those tides have not been calmed, who are still seeking solace, who are battling demons that nobody else can see, that some refuse to acknowledge.
If you are reading this and you are one of those people: please know that your experience is valid.
I am praying for you, even if you don’t believe in prayer.
I feel you.