“Don’t let them pick you and don’t let them pump yo’ head eitha. What goes on in this house stays in this house!”
Those were the instructions my grandmother gave me before talking to the social workers and therapists my school insisted I speak with. Prior to our mandated meeting, I had picked up crack vials on the playground of the projects and brought them into school. That’s when the investigations began.
During our sessions I would try not to tell them everything but I was only five, maybe six, and a talkative little one at that. I suppose I had said too much when Child Protective Services came to our door to take us from her. I’d never seen my grandmother so fraught with anger. In retrospect, I know it wasn’t so much anger as it was fear.
My grandmother never let my sister and I visit the therapist that called CPS on her again. I can remember checking in with a school social worker a few times a year from kindergarten to sixth grade, but from middle school to high school, my mental health needs were pretty much neglected. It would be 11 years after graduating from high school before I found myself getting the proper care.
I was 28.
I can’t say the trepidation of appearing “crazy” or weak as a woman of color is what kept me from seeking help before then. It was honestly because I did not know that what I was experiencing could actually be labeled. The world of mental health was completely unknown to me despite the fact that I had earned a Masters in Special Education and had a sister who was in self-contained classes growing up. I did not make the connection between my knowledge and my experiences, and I did not know I was mentally ill. I simply assessed, “This is just how I am.”
What I found through my journey towards self-discovery is that it is out of the most innocent ignorance that we normalize conduct that should be considered impractical, irrational, and even insane. The most prevalent examples of such natural yet noxious behaviors are physical and verbal abuse.
For many individuals of color, there is a stigma attached to acknowledging the need for mental help, and for a number of those, specifically elders like my grandmother, there is a fear of losing control of themselves and everything around them in the process. Admitting her abusive habits would have forced my grandmother to admit that something was wrong with her, which could have resulted in her losing us.
The day I was personally urged to seek mental help by another educator, I could not allow my own fear of being mislabeled or misdiagnosed keep me from getting assistance. I knew something was wrong. I had to surrender.
“Give it to me doc. Give it to me straight… I’m ready… Come on out with it.” She was taking too long. I wanted to choke the words out of her. Instead, I put my hands under my butt and began rocking back and forth. The sound of the wax paper wrinkling on top of the hospital bed was irritating, but I couldn’t control my nerves enough to stop moving.
“Ms. Clay, you’re not bipolar. You have a mood disorder. You’re severely depressed.”
In that moment I was overwhelmed with relief. It was scary but freeing. It’s been two years since then, and now my label is soothing. It’s my net. It’s my, “I can’t seem to focus or concentrate today but I will try again tomorrow.” It’s my, “I just can’t get out of bed, rather be alone, and just lay here in my thoughts.”
I am living with Major Depressive Disorder. Part of living with it means understanding and accepting its phases.
At this stage in my growth I understand my depression and use my wisdom to aid my middle school students who are struggling with social-emotional mental health issues. There are many who are aware of their diagnosis but lack the skill set to cope with it on their own. Some of my students could use the net of a label in the same way that I do but have yet to begin the journey of attaining that level of support.
The way specialized education is viewed within predominately Black and Hispanic schools carries a larger stigma, preventing families from seeking help. So when my students, like the younger me, find themselves withdrawn from their class work, moods shifting, or behavior becoming more impulsive or less than their normal energy, I immediately advocate for them.
Through daily acts of meditation, journaling, and circle talks, I cultivate a clear message that their lives matter. I assign readings that prompt them to see themselves and find ways to love themselves first. I am adamant about teaching them that self-care is not selfish. I know that being so open with them about my own experiences comforts and reassures them that they are not alone.
In the realm of mental health, self-acceptance is more important than any lesson I can deliver. I am intentional about teaching my students how to identify their own feelings and remain aware of themselves at all times. The more we use education to deconstruct the towering walls around mental health, the more we will be able to free and serve our most vulnerable population — the children.
Valencia D. Clay is a teacher, writer and author of Soundless Cries Don’t Lead to Healing: A Critical Thinking Guide to Cultural Consciousness. Follow her musings on Instagram @valencia_valencia or on her blog, valenciasgarden.com.