My Family Didn’t Think My Depression Was Real

And I couldn’t get better until they changed their minds

by

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of self-harm and suicidal ideation.

A young Black woman with her hand over her face
(Photo: Getty Images)

I suffered my worst bout of seasonal depression three years ago.

My daughter, Zuri-Sanaa, was two years old. In addition to motherhood, I had a full-time job and I was enrolled in university, where I was juggling two majors. I’d experienced seasonal depression before. Usually, I’d feel the need to isolate myself from the world, but this time was different. Overwhelmed by the idea of tackling life—and motherhood—with little assistance, thoughts of death and hopelessness clouded my mind.

I spent hours pacing back and forth in my living room, trying to calm myself down. Finally, at midnight, I called my mother. 

It was a last resort. I had vivid and, to be honest, negative memories of past attempts to talk to her about my mental health, so I worried that she would minimize my need for help this time, too. But her response was something I had been waiting for my entire life. The call only lasted 10 minutes, but the fact that she stayed on the phone with me, sympathizing and offering reassurance, was profound. Things weren’t perfect after that, but it did signal a shift in the way my mother thinks about depression and mental health. And, it was a key part of my own healing.

Mental health is often considered a “white people problem”

As much as I boast about the rich customs and traditions that my Afro-Trinidadian family have passed on to me, I also have to acknowledge that negative attitudes about mental health also trickled down. Mental health has long been considered a “white people problem” by many Caribbean people, both in the diaspora and back home. Growing up, my mother and family members didn’t show emotion easily. Moments of affection were rare, and when I mentioned my mental health, I was dismissed.

In high school, I was at the height of my depression and dealing with constant bullying, but my mother’s response was limited to patois phrases that did little to minimize my stress—“Wa depress you? You have bills ah pay?”—or unhelpful advice about praying the pain away. Now, I can understand that my mother had to be hard. She migrated from Trinidad at only fourteen, to an unfamiliar place that wasn’t set up to ensure her survival. So, while her methods were damaging, I  understand where they came from.

But the problem isn’t just stigma. According to a 2016 York University study using Ontario Health Study survey results, Black Canadians report “significantly more stressful life events”—a key risk factor for developing mental illness—and are “significantly less likely to see a psychiatrist.” Yes, part of that comes down to our own reluctance to seek help. But there are other factors, too. According to the Black Health Alliance, Black Canadians make up almost 3% of the population, but account for 18% of the Canadians who are experiencing poverty, which makes it difficult to access mental health services. And racism and sexism definitely play a role. 

My daughter won’t grow up the way I did

While my struggle with mental health is an ongoing battle that shifts according to the day or week, I’m comforted by the fact that I can now confide in my mother. If I’m being honest, that phone call wasn’t the first indication that her understanding of mental health had evolved. When I was pregnant, she became more receptive and understanding to my mental health struggles. She encouraged me to stay positive throughout my pregnancy in order to be mentally sound and healthy for my baby. No, our relationship isn’t perfect. But my mother’s support has been a necessary part of my healing.

I haven’t experienced anymore bouts of suicidal thoughts since I made that phone call three years ago. And, in an effort to eliminate old habits and patterns, I have created a safe, healthy space for Zuri-Sanaa. In contrast to my relationship with my mother growing up, I make it my mission to talk through her feelings and get to the root of her frustrations before I react with anger. She is raised in a space where she is allowed to be vulnerable and emotional, which will hopefully blossom into a relationship where she will feel free to confide in me without reservations or fears of judgement. 

The attitudes I was exposed to growing up in a Caribbean household will not follow me and ultimately, I’ll create a life that my child won’t have to heal from.

If you are thinking about self-harm or having suicidal thoughts, contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, find a 24/7 Crisis Centre via the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention or reach out to a resource in your province:

British Columbia: Province-Wide Mental Health Support Line (24/7 hotline: 310-6789) | Alberta: Distress Centre Calgary (24/7 hotline: 403-266-4357) | Saskatchewan: Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (24/7 hotline: 306-764-1011) | Manitoba: Manitoba Reason to Live (24/7 hotline: 1-877-435-7170) | Ontario: Connex Ontario (24/7 hotline: 1-866-531-2600) | Quebec: The Quebec Association for Suicide Prevention (24/7 hotline: 866-277-3553) | New Brunswick: Chimo Helpline (24/7 hotline: 450-4357) | Nova Scotia: Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team (24/7 hotline: 1-888-429-8167) | Prince Edward Island: Island Helpline (24/7 hotline: 1-800-218-2885) | Newfoundland: Mental Health Crisis Line (24/7 hotline: 1-888-737-4668) | Northwest Territories: NWT Help Line (24/7 hotline: 1-800-661-0844)

Related:

Where to Find Affordable & Accessible Mental Health Care Across Canada
‘Growing Up, I’d Hear ‘Depression Is For White People”: 6 Black Women on Mental Health Taboos
Beyond #GetHelp: How to Support a Friend in Crisis—from Someone Who Has Been There

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