By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – Psycho. Weirdo. Crazy. Schizo. Wacko. They are just some of the many labels many fear will be forever forged on them once they acknowledge the “voodoo” topic of mental illness, even mental health in general.
“If we don’t talk about these things, it’s dangerous,” said psychologist and coach Wendy Petties, who led a Zoom discussion hosted by the Newburgh Free Library on these very topics last Wednesday evening from 6:30-8pm. Although mental health and how it affects all people was at the forefront, African-Americans in particular were the focus population, as February is Black History Month.
Petties initiated her talk with a detailed segment on the debilitating stigmas placed upon, as well as false beliefs held by people in the African-American community regarding getting any kind of mental health help. She highlighted a sampling. “I’m strong enough to handle it on my own.” “If I go to therapy, I don’t have enough faith.” “ Keep it inside the family.”
“Our ancestors have been through much worse.” Petties further pointed out how deeply embedded these harmful stigmas are in the very fabric of the African-American culture, only serving to avoid- prevent critical and useful care. Rather than be stifled by these limiting parameters, Petties urged those tuning in to make mental health care their priority, especially during these challenging times.
“It takes real work to work on your life,” stressed Petties, who also related how it’s something she makes a priority in her own life as well as her professional one.
The veteran therapist displayed on the screen some productive words to offer those in need. “I’ve been worried about you.” “How are you, really?” “I’ve noticed some changes in you.” In contrast, phrases to avoid when reaching out to those you sense are in pain were also presented. “It’s all in your head.” “You’re just having a bad day.” “Man up.” “What will your family say.” “Why are you talking about this stuff.” All of these gestures to “help” can actually end up having the exact opposite effect, leading to shame and even further feelings of isolation and helplessness.
What if the depression, anxiety, or any other forms of mental health challenges are being faced by you yourself and not a friend or relative? Petties offered a host of options that can help add a positive spark to the moment or day. Physical activity, sometimes simply getting outside and breathing in fresh air can kick start serotonin. Staying in touch with friends and family can assist with forging priceless connections we all crave. Saying no when our “plates are full,” can maintain critical balance and ensuring we are getting enough sleep can make us more alert, focused and energized to tackle what comes our way.
So, why does all of this even matter? Petties posed this query to her listeners. She soon offered a response.
“We really need to take care of our mental health as well as that of the community,” said Petties. “It’s so important to dispel the myths out there about therapy as well as normalize talking about mental health issues in general and make it more like seeing a physical doctor when you are sick.”
Following her presentation of the state of mental health in the African-American community, Petties urged listeners to share their own stories, either in the “chat-box” option on the virtual platform or in-person on screen. Two women talked about their own struggles with mental health. One related her challenges as an African-American nurse, dealing with being in a leadership role as a black woman, specifically during Covid. She also revealed her social frustrations since the onset of the Pandemic. While another female guest, who also works in health care, tuning in spoke of the pain connected to dealing with a good friend who had committed suicide.
“I feel like mental health is a forgotten subject a lot of people do just say get over it when you’re going through a tough time, but it’s not always that easy,” said the woman.
Petties, keenly listening in to both of these women’s journeys as well as reflecting upon her daily encounters with mental health issues, extended words of empathy and comfort.
“We are all doing the best we can,” said Petties. “Give yourself a little grace.”
She also reminded all in attendance to refer back as often as possible to an affirmation she had displayed on the screen at both the program’s onset and conclusion:
“As a black person, I deserve to live a healthy, full life in a way I am safe, valued and affirmed.”