Dearest Readers, writing for Black History Month is difficult. There is a difficult balance of focusing on concepts vs. people, discussing people that are strangers vs. people you are friendly with, and characters vs real people. To further the complication, there is an urge to spend the whole month celebrating and spotlighting things that deserve praise. But at the same time, I find it absolutely necessary to discuss less enjoyable topics.
I’d like to be a bit open and personal with you for this post. I’ve been struggling with depression recently, to a higher degree than what I consider normal for myself. The past weekend, and days leading up to it, I pretty much shut myself away from the outside world besides work—turned social media off, stopped reading texts, only talked to family when they initiated conversation, that sort of thing. It was a break, I guess, but I readily saw it as a personal low point. I don’t see the benefit in boring you with the specific details, but I start off with this personal anecdote to lead into my most repeated talking point: representation matters.
Repetition and routine bring me comfort in times of stress. That’s one of the reasons I bring this topic up so much; the other being that it doesn’t stop being important. In this instance, I’m referring to representation of Black characters with mental illnesses, specifically depression. I’d be far off the mark to claim we’ve done a good job of representing mental illness among any racial groups, but I know from personal experience that depression in the Black community is sort of a taboo and disregarded subject.
There are articles upon articles and studies discussing the problems of confining gender roles such as toxic masculinity boxing in our men and the oversexualization of our women. Not only do these standards create a sense of inadequacy, but also dissuade us from admitting to having this mental illness and definitely from seeking help as this would be considered “admitting weakness”. Mix in bigotry that attacks the queer spectrum and the racism Black people face, and there is a storm of problems that definitely increase the chance of acquiring depression or similar symptoms and allowing them to fester.
To be more specific, and because I’m a fan of statistics, African Americans are reported having higher rates of depression than our white peers (4% to 3.1%), yet have lower rates of seeking help (7.6% of us, compared to the 13.6% of the general population). According to related studies, this is especially true among Black women. These numbers clearly show that there is problem in our community. Not only do we not publicly admit these problems, we also don’t do anything about it.
Thus, it is easy to understand why Black characters with mental illnesses don’t often appear in media. One character I do recall having struggles who I related to in a way was Cyborg from Teen Titans. (The old cartoon, not the new one, which I’m not nearly as familiar with.) I remember that he wrestled with the idea of being mostly robotic, and how human he was. That ventures into the realm of transhumanism and disability studies, sure, but his attitude played like depression in my perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t recall them delving too deeply into his mental wellbeing. Other than that, a cursory Google search didn’t yield any strong results besides a character from Orange is the New Black, and it’s not a Black character.
This all comes down to normalization. It’s totally normal to deal with depression, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. That only makes the lack of representation worse, in my experience. I honestly do think it helps to see characters that at least intermittently have struggles in media. Even if it is subconscious on the viewers’ part, we consider what we see to be standard. The standard currently is either being neurotypical or having a prettied up version of depression. Characters that are affected typically have a few off-hand mentions of “feeling depressed”, but the accompanying hardships aren’t really acknowledged. By promoting this image, expressing and coping with our struggle becomes more difficult. We feel like we might be overexaggerating our problems, and friends and family may think that we are just being dramatic.
For this reason, I want to see more Black characters that wrestle with depression. I want to see characters that only have minor hurdles. I want to see characters that don’t necessarily get to a storybook ending. The whole spectrum exists, and each additional visual better represents the truth that we can encounter the illness in a variety of ways. I think authors and creators are fully capable of handling these stories, and it would only help more people feel included and enrich our stories. This would help me, for instance, feel less alone in these more difficult times. Better representation would help family members and significant others of those suffering do a better job of relating to them and at least having a cursory understanding of their problems.
I don’t know if we’ll get to this right away, and quite honestly, I’m not sure if others suffering from depression would be that jazzed up about seeing the illness represented in fiction. But I know for me, it would be a bit relieving to know a part of my story is being expressed as an accepted part of the greater consciousness of Black fiction. And if just a few people are touched, and made to feel a bit better, that’s a good start for me.