One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.
I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.
I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.
Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.
It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.
Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.
Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.
What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?
These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.
I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.
Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.
Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.
The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.
All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.
I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.