Black and “Crazy”: An Afro-Canadian’s Mental Health Journey

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

Over the past few years we have seen a movement around mental health in Canada. People are starting to become aware of mental health and the effect it has on our society. We are sharing our experiences and stories on platforms like the Bell Let’s Talk initiative and organizations like the Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH) are helping those that lack the support in their journey. However, the actions taken by various organization still do not address the problems that Afro-Canadians face when trying to deal with their mental health.

I was born in Guyana, South America and in my country when someone suffers from mental illness they are labelled as “crazy.” They wander the streets without homes or support of the community until they are eventually locked away in an asylum known as the ‘Berbice Mad House’ and forgotten, most never seeing the light of day again. They are considered outsiders, less than human because mental health is not recognized as a treatable disease. In the Caribbean/West Indian culture being “crazy” holds a life sentence akin to murder. When they immigrate to Canada their negative attitudes and beliefs about mental health come along with them and their children are taught that being “crazy” is just not acceptable.

Afro-Canadians face issues around family, shame, denial and religion. This is not to say that other cultures don’t experience these same issues however, the systemic denial of mental health in the black community, the shame and belief that you can pray the “crazy” away instead of seeking professional help is common. We hide our mental health issues from the outside world for fear of being judged and persecuted. Families experience extreme shame, guilt and sometimes disgust when a family member is deemed “crazy” by their community or even an outside concerned party. The family dynamic changes into one fraught with secrecy and cover-ups, denying there is a problem at all, denying that their sister, brother, mother, father, uncle, aunt or friend suffers from mental illness. Often people go undiagnosed and are left untreated, left to struggle with conditions they don’t understand and can’t control.

I am a 35-year-old black woman who has suffered from mental health issues since adolescence. When I was younger my health issues manifested as depression and general anxiety. I can remember at 14-years-old losing myself after a brutal sexual assault. I became despondent, withdrawn and anxious. I hid my emotions for years from my parents because I didn’t want to worry them but mostly because I didn’t want them to see me as less than or damaged. It was my mother that finally noticed my struggle and at the age of 17 she took me to see a child psychologist. That is where my mental health journey began.

Even though I sought help there was still a huge part of me that believed I could fix myself, I didn’t need the medication the doctors wanted to prescribe me and I didn’t want to go to therapy on any kind of regular basis. I balked at the idea that I had a problem and even with a mother who was a medical professional she too balked at the idea that my problems couldn’t be fixed with a few conversations with God. She would tell me to pray steadfastly and ask Him for help to get through what neither one of us understood at the time.

I remember going away to school and struggling with my depression and anxiety. It was effecting my work and my relationships so I sought the help of a therapist because prayer just wasn’t working, willing myself to get out of bed wasn’t working, ignoring the problem wasn’t working. I had to try something so I took my problems to the professionals once again. I was prescribed medication for the first time for the depression and anxiety but I seldom took it. I went to the sessions and like confession I bared my soul but to what end? I still felt lost, out of place but I refused to acknowledge I was as sick as I was.

One year after I graduated university I would have my first psychotic break. My parents moved me back home after a three-week stay in a psychiatric ward. They hid me away and called it protection but I saw it for what it was— shame and disappointment. It was what I feared all long being less than, being damaged. My whole family acted the same way, they stopped looking at me as a bright, capable woman and started seeing me as “crazy” and unstable. No one could understand what I was going through and truth be told I think they were all just as scared as I was, scared of the unknown future, scared of mental health. They kept my psychotic episode a secret, warning me not to tell the outside world for fear of being judged, for fear the family would be judged.

When I finally received a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in 2009, my family was devastated because now there was no end in sight. According to the doctors I was going to have moderate to severe manic episodes throughout my life for the rest of my life. My family rejected the diagnosis and at the time it felt as if they were rejecting me. There was no way to predict them and the only way to keep them at bay was my medication. For the first several years after the diagnosis I didn’t believe either; I couldn’t have a serious condition; I didn’t need meds to keep me stable; I could do it on my own. I was non-compliant and I kept relapsing to my family’s utter dismay and disappointment.

It took some time for me to reconcile with my illness but I did and now I vigilantly seek out the help and support I need. That help and support however does not always come in the form of family. There are a few members of my clan that understand what I go through and have stood by me but for the most part my family doesn’t get it. As West Indians my culture dictates that being black and “crazy” is just unacceptable. It is hidden and suppressed and dealt with through the righteousness of God. Through Him all things are possible to them even a “cure” to my illness. I grew up in the church and for a time I was naive enough to believe the power of prayer would get me through but these days I prefer to rely on the power of science, even though I still pray.

When I finally broke free of the expectations my family placed on me regarding my mental health I was able to deal with the reality of my issues. When I stopped keeping my Bipolar a secret from the world like my family advised, I finally felt free and ready to deal with my recovery. Growing up with two cultural dynamics (North American and West Indian) can be a challenge in the best of times but when you suffer from a serious mental health condition it can ware on your values and pull you in two different directions. I needed the help my family couldn’t give me so I had to put all opposing opinions behind me and do what was best for me.

I checked myself into the hospital in 2016 after an attempted suicide. I had had enough with this world that didn’t understand me, that I felt lost in and I tried to take my own life. I was overwhelmed by my work, my relationships and my family and I simply had had enough. I was fortunate that the attempt was unsuccessful but it did lead me down a path of self-discovery and ultimately self-healing. I have a team I work with now that keeps me accountable for my own mental health and that acts as a support system when I need it. I still struggle but now I have hope for my future. Being black and “crazy” has gotten easier over the years, I know now it’s who I am and with all its complexity I wouldn’t change me or what I’ve been through for the world.