Stigma Silently Kills: Reflections From A Black Youth Mental Health Teach-In
“Stigma kills,” wrote Mercy Shibemba in Reflections on ‘It’s a Sin’, a show highlighting the life of three gay men during the AIDS crisis. The stigma she speaks about is multi-faceted, pervasive, and dehumanizing. Her keynote presentation on October 6th, 2022, in YouthREX’s teach-in, Beyond Invisible: Black Youth Mental Health, is raw and vulnerable, expanding on the ways that stigma affects mental health. She brings her own experience of growing up with HIV to the forefront of the conversation, explaining that while she was never ashamed, she felt invisible.
While conversations about HIV and mental health are more open than they’ve been in the past, stigma still colours every part of the lives of those afflicted. She explains six different types of stigma, all of which everyone has encountered some time in their lives. Mercy’s explanation on self-stigma, the stigma people internalize towards themselves, made me stop to reflect. It was surprising to realize how much stigma I hold towards myself, towards conditions that are not my fault. And although it’s crucial to discuss how to change outward stigma, it’s equally important to reflect on how to treat oneself with kindness and how to dispose of learned prejudice facing mental health.
In the audience, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences with mental health, both personal and in the context of the mental health services. As a child, I found myself inexplicably and extremely unhappy at times, which I struggled to articulate. Mercy expands upon this in her presentation, pointing out the risk in being a young Black or racialized person speaking up about mental health, how their issues/struggles can get trivialized, and how the response is often unsatisfactory to the problem.
This was something I personally experienced as a young child; I was laughed at by the adults who were supposed to protect me when I explained my trepidation with social situations and apathy towards daily life. Mental illness can be encountered at any age, and should be taken seriously regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. It is upon breaking down these barriers that we can facilitate more candid conversations about mental health and the stigma that surrounds it.
“What makes a good life?” is the question raised by YouthREX’s own Rahma Siad-Togane and Kamau Davis-Locke in the closing presentation.
It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times and a question that is hard to answer. Happiness, I suppose, is how I would personally define a good life. But happiness is multi-faceted and differs from person to person. Even so, my idea of happiness is not too far off from what the Black youth interviewed for Ontario Youth Sector Compass stated their factors of happiness to be: financial stability, love and companionship, societal acceptance, personal fulfillment, and being mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy.
Mental health and the potential to live a fulfilling life are things that should be guaranteed, but there are still many barriers in Ontario that deny access to this. Black youth interviewed talked about how mental (ill) health, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, has prevented them from having healthy social networks and navigating life in a non-stressful manner. Feelings of inadequacy also arise and are closely connected to mental health, something I found myself reflecting on.
In this day and age, it’s very difficult to not draw comparisons to other people because it will seem that there will always be other people more successful and supported than you. It is important to take time to realize that comparison is not beneficial to anyone, and to celebrate your own achievements. It’s something I have to consciously remind myself as well.
Changes must happen at a structural level to support youth mental health.
As Rahma and Kamau explained, rent and housing should not be a luxury, but a basic right. No one should live with housing and food insecurity, nor have to take on jobs that affect their self-fulfillment just to pay the bills. Ontario should provide a universal livable income for its residents. But until then, change can also happen at home when we reflect and introspect. We can change our thoughts, ideas, and stigma to be kinder to others and to ourselves.