On Married to Medicine: Los Angeles, Imani Walker, D.O., is confronting mental health stigma and redefining the rigid roles that Black women—especially those on reality TV—are so often pushed into. The Bravo show features Black women who are doctors or married to doctors and attempts to portray the tight-knit—and unfortunately small—Black medical professional community of Los Angeles.  

Walker has three degrees and is a highly regarded psychiatrist, but she initially wanted to become a writer. Her mother, Paula Madison, is a former journalist and as a child Walker would accompany her to the newsroom. That experience sparked the psychiatrist’s lifelong interest in creating stories, writing about real-world issues and analyzing fictional characters’ motivations.

Writing was Walker’s “first love”: “I loved analyzing literature and each characters’ motivations…. Psychiatry is similar and it involves a lot of writing.” She says analyzing her patients’ motivations and reflecting deeply on solutions not only engages her creatively but also helps her to save lives.

Walker hopes that her presence on Married to Medicine: Los Angeles will have a similar effect and that she will be able to widen the public’s perspective, especially regarding intersections of mental health, race and gender. Walker tells ESSENCE that she wanted to be on the show “to empower little girls to know that they, too, can pursue medicine and psychiatry and to show Black people—Black women especially—that there are Black psychiatrists out there.”

Walker auditioned for the show because she says there “isn’t a lot of representation of psychiatrists on TV…. There’s Dr. Phil and there’s Iyanla [Vanzant}…neither of which are trained…in many different modalities.” That’s what makes Walker’s presence on the show so revolutionary.

Revolutionary probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one mentions reality TV, but in Walker’s case it more than applies. Married to Medicine solely features Black women, and it’s incredible that Black women can tune in to it and see a Black woman psychiatrist talking about mental health without judgment. This kind of TV representation helps to start a dialogue focused on dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health issues and treatment—a stigma that is unfortunately still very much alive in our society and within the Black community.

Walker says systemic inequities increase a Black woman’s risk for mental illness. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. They’re also more likely to experience risk factors for mental illness. For example, Black Americans are 40 percent more likely to experience homelessness than the rest of the population.

But despite the urgency and seriousness of this issue in Black neighborhoods, Walker says that community mental health initiatives are often “the first to get cut.” It’s incredibly frustrating for her, she says, because there exists a paradox where mental health is ignored, but mental illnesses are often blamed for the worst elements of our society, like gun violence. “Mental illness keeps getting blamed for these things. I hope that with me being visible and vocal, I can help bring the truth and importance of mental health to light,” she says.

When asked about the unique challenges Black people face regarding mental health, Walker says, “Black people carry around so much all the time, and we’re used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting our bodies and our minds. We need to recognize that we have trauma.” What she describes is a grim reality: Studies have shown that exposure to systemic racism and microaggressions causes “racial battle syndrome,” which has symptoms that are similar to soldiers returning home from combat.

The mental health risk that all Black Americans face is a truth that Walker is intimately aware of, even as someone who grew up in a professional family with a fair amount of class privilege. “As I a kid I knew that there was something different about my family. Then I went to med school and [began to study psychiatry] and realized that there were so many people in my family who had mental illness despite their success…. There is no face of mental illness.”

But even though mental illness can affect anyone, Walker deliberately works among the most vulnerable—people who without her help might in up dead or in prison. As the medical director of Gateways Hospital & Mental Health Center, she says she treats a lot of patients—often Black—who are experiencing homelessness, schizophrenia, chronic depression, and others society might dismiss as being “criminally insane.” Walker says she was motivated to do this kind of work because she “always find[s] something redeeming in those people society didn’t. I wanted to make sure that I was able to serve my community, but personally I enjoy working with these patients because I feel that they can relate to me and I can relate to them. It turned out to be a win-win situation.”

Because her patients are often Black, she says that their shared identity helps facilitate healing in a unique way. However, the percentage of Black mental health professionals is dismal, so this isn’t an experience most are able to access.  

But, for Walker, she and her patients often share another, more painful connection. Like that of most Black people, Walker’s family story is woven with equal parts success and trauma. Her father and her mother’s brother  struggled with substance abuse, so Walker says that “unfortunately I was used to seeing this type of crisis. Most [addicts] are mentally ill and they’re self-medicating…. A lot of times that person has a very interesting story.” Walker and her father’s complicated story is, in fact, a topic that is discussed on the show.

When asked how she maintains her own mental health while helping her patients, Walker says that “patients themselves don’t take a toll on me…. If anything it’s an enjoyable challenge. The real toll is the administrative stuff.”

However, she stresses that consistent self-care is crucial for her, especially as someone who experiences anxiety and depression along with other illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome. Her self-care strategies include delegating tasks, meditating, exercising and occasionally going to the spa.

Walker is aware that reality-TV shows have also contributed to negative stereotypes about Black women, but she’s interested in breaking that mold, not perpetuating it: “Overwhelmingly, I believe that most Black women on reality TV shows fit the same tropes that we’ve always seen in entertainment. These would include the Mammy, the Sapphire and the Jezebel. There’s nothing wrong with behaving like any one of those three types of characters—we are all a combination of all three and then some. It was therefore very important for me to make sure that my personality was portrayed on Married to Medicine in a multifaceted fashion instead of a one-dimensional one.”

Indeed, Walker is anything but one-dimensional. “Someone [her costar Contessa Metcalfe] made a joke on the show that I’m a Black unicorn. I’m not,” Walker says. “There are Black psychiatrists. We’re not everywhere but we are out there. Even if they don’t end up seeing a Black psychiatrist, I just want Black women to know that there are empathetic doctors who really do like our jobs and want to help people with mental illness get better.”

That distinction applies in the best possible way. Walker is a Black female psychiatrist who is confronting stereotypes, normalizing mental health treatment and opening up crucial conversations about the intersections of race, gender and mental illness. She’s not one-dimensional. She is exceptional.

 

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