Discussion on Black Identity and Mental Illness

By Tierra Hohn 

It is difficult, it is debilitating, it is a reality that you face but one that you often feel embarrassed about having and, by all means, should never disclose... That is what it feels like to be black and have a mental illness.

Our society has slowly been coming to terms with the prevalence and severity of mental illness, however the social and cultural stigmatization faced by blacks as well as other minorities whom experience mental health issues, still remain high.

Scientifically speaking, mental illness does not discriminate; anyone can be affected by it. In fact, 1 in 5 individuals are affected (Smetanin et al, 2011). 

In black communities, mental illness exists but from my experience, it often feels like the elephant in the room. It is clear that there is an issue, yet no one chooses to speak about it.

I feel that one of the scariest things about mental illness is having to face it alone… no one should ever have to! Although, it can be difficult finding help especially when you feel that no one will take you seriously or even try to understand.

I have had many experiences when I have spoken out about my battles with anorexia, and instead of receiving encouragement or support I would a receive a response along the lines of... "Black women naturally have curves... Why are you trying to be skinny?" Or "you were raised in a Caribbean household, why would you want to deprive yourself of all that good food?” in other words what they are saying is, “black people cannot have eating disorders”.

These are just some examples of lack of education and awareness. This cannot be said enough but, mental illnesses are not something that one can control; and mental illness, does not discriminate! You cannot blame someone for having a mental illness, nor can you tell them how they should act or how they should be based on their race or ethnic background.

Ongoing discrimination, poverty, funding shortages, stigma, lack of attention, lack of representation, embarrassment, crime, incarceration, isolation, deprivation. When I think of mental illness and how it affects black individuals, those are just some of the thoughts that come to my mind.

It should absolutely not be this way as this discussion on mental illness should be inclusive, and ALL individuals regardless of race or overall identity should be able to access treatment and support. There are many things that need to happen in order to address the treatment of mental illness in black communities, but one way to start is by pushing for education and awareness through OPEN and ONGOING conversations.



Smetanin et al (2011). The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada: 2011-2041.


Tierra Hohn is a body image enthusiast, mental health advocate, and promoter of happiness. She graduated from Carleton University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management. Her lived experience with an eating disorder and depression has motivated her to help others struggling with similar issues. In 2015, Tierra completed an honours research thesis on the influence of media literacy in Ontario on the body image of adolescent girls. Tierra also writes a blog, discussing topics such as mental health, wellness, and happiness: www.tierrahohn.weebly.com. Please feel free to follow her on Twitter @tierrahohn

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