As Memorial Day weekend came to a close and the conversation about Naomi Osaka deciding to forgo press after the French Open went viral, I vividly remember loudly screaming out “YESSS SIS” to the news. I live for anyone and everyone taking a stand and pushing back against the capitalistic and “grind”culture that tells us to push through and ignore our mental and emotional health at the sake of anything and everyone – but I especially love when it is the Black women among us that take this stand. Naomi, at just 23 years of age, was taking a very public stand on a global stage for her right to simply say no to something that did not serve nor was good for her mental or emotional well-being.
Like clockwork the retaliation, propaganda and gaslighting struck at lighting speed with media outlets and “twitter experts” calling her every racist name under the sun along with ungrateful, spoiled, and a crybaby just to list a few. The misogyny and immediate attempts to police and control her body and behavior immediately jumped out. The French Open along with other competitions threatened her with expulsion, fines, and ignited attempts to bully this already legendary sports icon into serving their needs — the needs of a capitalist system at the expense of her mental well-being. Naomi held firm to her stand and eventually dropped out of the competition. The irony of this was not lost on me since we were on the cusp of ending the month deemed: Mental Health Awareness Month. This entire situation reflects that contrary to the hashtags and instagram squares American society and its corporations do not care about mental health; and certainly not the mental health of Black Americans.
A digression to consider the research
Think I am spewing hyperbole? Think again. According to Mental Health America:
- Black and African American people living below poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those living over 2x the poverty level.
- Adult Black and African American individuals are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than adult whites.
- Black and African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers (9.8 percent v. 6.1 percent).
According to SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
- Sixteen percent (4.8 million) of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness, and 22.4 percent of those (1.1 million people) reported a serious mental illness over the past year.
- Serious mental illness (SMI) rose among all ages of Black and African American people between 2008 and 2018.
- Despite rates being less than the overall U.S. population, major depressive episodes increased from 9 percent to 10.3 percent in Black and African American youth ages 12-17, 6.1 percent to 9.4 percent in young adults 18-25, and 5.7 percent to 6.3 percent in the 26-49 age range between 2015 and 2018.
The effects of systemic racism, covert or overt along with daily micro/macroagressions compound the Black fatigue, pain, and depression that we face in the Black community. Despite all of this, access to mental health care remains elusive for many who identify as Black.
- While the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has helped to close the gap in uninsured individuals, 11.5 percent of Black and African Americans, versus 7.5 percent of white Americans were still uninsured in 2018.
- In 2018, 58.2 percent of Black and African American young adults 18-25 and 50.1 percent of adults 26-49 with serious mental illness did NOT receive treatment.
- In 2016, 12.3 percent of Black and African American adults who had a doctor’s office or clinic visit over the past year had difficulty getting needed care, tests or treatment compared to 6.8 percent of white adults.
It was in that moment that I connected with Naomi
Not as one of the world’s greatest living athletes, but through her exercising the right to protect her mental and emotional health despite the constraints of a system that has shown time and again that it neither cares or priorities mental health and wellness. I can remember being a young professional working under a white boss that was verbally, mentally and emotionally abusive. I lived with anxiety during this time and routinely blamed myself for the emotional anxiety and physical pain that I was experiencing under the “reign” of this person. This was the beginning of a long line of bosses that treated me more like a piece of property than a self respecting human that had rights. Like Naomi, my journey to exercise my right to say no and to set boundaries against things that no longer serve me or that are detrimental to my mental well-being is one that I continue to work on every. single. day.
I, too, have endured the constraints and pressure of work systems and people that pretended to care about my mental health and well-being on paper — but in practice gaslit and manipulated me to work more, do more, give more of myself than I had to give. A system that made me feel like it was a crime to call in sick, or who wanted me to work despite being admitted to the hospital after a panic attack. A system that told me to suck it up, endure the pain, stop being a crybaby. A system that routinely ignored my pleas for help and pushed me to give more of my time, energy, and body to a system that couldn’t care less about me.
This system, rooted in white supremacy, is the same system that tells us everyday in covert and overt ways that Black people are inferior and deserving of death and only views me as valuable so much as I could produce for the benefit of the system. Like Naomi and so many other Black women, I have been asked to push through, put on a smile, and pretend to be well despite the mental and emotional anguish and depression that I was experiencing. A system that disregards my pleas to rest, take a break, or to just not be at the top of my game at all times. All of this is coupled with a system that has exploited my work and the work of my ancestors for profit with no pay. A system that pillaged, a system that committed systematic genocide, a system that enslaved. A system that is built to support, promote, and sustain the image of the model person, the model body — one that is white, able-bodied, thin, and male at the expense of everyone else.
Like Naomi, I’ve been called names, called a liar, told to “man up,” suck it up, solider on and do what was best for the system but not for myself. Like Naomi, I’ve been judged for looking perfectly healthy on the outside despite the invisible and unseen nature of my disability. Like Naomi, I cannot overlook the centuries of anti-Black racism that have only seen the value in the Black body so much as it can produce and make profit for whiteness and white owners. Bodies that were exploited, lynched, raped, maimed and seen as inhumane.
These systems are alive and well today and we saw them work the way they always have like gears of a well oiled clock. They sprung into action to demean, defame, and malign this beautiful Black woman who dared to exercise the God given autonomy and right to self-care. A system that would rather force her to perform at all costs and then as soon as she collapses pretends to give a damn, only to further exploit her in her death. In moments like this, I am thankful for social media; thankful for our ability to own and shape our own narratives and the ability to quickly organize in the digital realm and push back on a white supremacist and capitalist system that continues to demean and dehumanize. Society shows us every day that it does not care about Black mental health, but I care about us. We care about us and we stand with Naomi and all the Black women before and after her. #protectBlackWomen
I give thanks every day that I have the privilege of creating my own system, where I can rest when I need to and take a break when I want to.
Sources and Resources for Mental Health Support
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Black And African American Communities And Mental Health
- Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit
- The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal System, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness, and Get the Help you Deserve
About Calvin Eaton
(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a disabled community educator, content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, equity, justice, instructional design, and program development. In 2016 Mr. Eaton founded 540WMain, Inc. a virtual non-profit organization and antiracist education brand that promotes justice for all. The organization encourages individuals to broaden their horizons and learn more about multidisciplinary issues and topics that impact the world.