Praying Depression Away Doesn’t Always Work
The first time I realized my mental state of mind was anything but “normal,” I was in eighth grade. Growing up, I battled with a nagging voice inside my head that insisted I was fat, not good enough, unlikable compared to others, and being bullied was my fault. I didn’t understand why I felt sad and hopeless all the time or knew how to talk about what I was feeling. So, I wrote down my deepest and most vulnerable thoughts in a journal.
I took my blue journal around with me everywhere in the eighth grade. It was first filled with poems about friendship and happiness and lyrics to some of my favorite songs. But as the voice inside my head got louder, the more the journal turned into a book of dejection. Writing in the journal was my only way of figuring out how to express the emptiness that filled in my body. Anytime I’d even remotely mention the word “depression” to anyone, especially my grandmother, people acted like it was a terminal illness. Some of my friends said it was something “only White people go through.” I didn’t know who to turn to. No one in my family or community talked to me about what depression was.
At church, depression was pushed as an absurd idea that Black people never go through because our ancestors – who fought hard for racial justice – taught us to pray and sing spirituals to uplift ourselves and each other in spite of everything thrown our way. They passed down the “tradition” to be strong at all times for generations instead of wallowing in our own misery. Because depression was labeled as the “White man’s disease,” I thought something was wrong with me.
I tried to ignore the voice inside my head but the older I got, the louder it became. I lashed out against my teachers and classmates frequently, had terrible mood swings, emotionally ate, and cried just about every day. I recall a memory in the third grade when I practically destroyed the classroom by throwing books, chairs, and whatever I could reach towards my classmates because they laughed at me for getting a question wrong that our teacher asked. Our teacher didn’t even tell them to stop. She stood there as I cried and yelled “stop laughing at me!” and let them continue to mock me.
Back then, I didn’t know my emotions weren’t the enemy; I didn’t have the language nor did I understand which tools to use to articulate how I was feeling. When my elementary school placed me in anger management, I felt shame. No matter how many different ways my counselor suggested that I try to keep my “anger” to a minimum, the depression wouldn’t go away. My mother used to always say to me, “Death and life are in the power on the tongue.” She convinced me that my “negative” self-talk put me in anger management. She insisted the devil was trying to keep me down, that my pessimistic attitude came from me speaking despair over my life, that if I prayed to God, he would heal me.
So, I did. I prayed to God every night asking him to save me. The prayers worked for a while, but it didn’t take long for the voice inside my head to creep back into my thoughts. Still, I tried to confide in my friends about my thoughts, but they didn’t know how to respond. I remember one of them saying, “Black people don’t get depressed.” This notion that Black people couldn’t suffer from mental illness prevented my friends, peers, and community from having a conversation about how to support loved ones with depression. Prayer was the answer for everything. In church constantly I heard, “whatever you’re going through, take it God.” But when it became clear that God wouldn’t heal my depression, I grew more confused.
As I got older and had dark thoughts, I suffered in silence and alone and never told anyone. I created the illusion that I was okay when in reality, I was far from it. It was better to look as if I had it all together than to be labeled the “weird emo Black girl.”
My junior year of college, I hit an all-time low. At one point during the school year, I didn’t leave my room for an entire month. I didn’t shower, didn’t brush my teeth, and I overate. My hair started to fall out from stress, I gained weight, and I refused to talk to anyone. When my mother called to check in on me, I disguised my voice. I didn’t want to hear her tired, ineffective prescriptions: “pray about it,” “you’re depressed because you say you are.” I needed someone to listen and tell me that my experience was valid.
I wanted the pain to go away. I wanted to get to a place where the voice inside my head didn’t consume my thoughts and drive me to a dark place but I just didn’t see it happening for me. I felt like I had no purpose being on Earth anymore, that the world would be a better place if I weren’t here, and no one would care if I died. I’d be a lost memory in everyone’s minds and their lives would be better without me. I wanted God to stop my suffering and just make the decision that it was time for me to go. But he didn’t listen to me. He made me stay down here on Earth continuing to suffer alone in silence.
I carried that weight around with me for years. No matter how hard I prayed, I couldn’t shake my depression. It only got worse. I still felt like I couldn’t talk to any of my friends or my mother because the conversation about Black mental health wasn’t happening. It’s considered as taboo. Black people are supposed to be seen as strong individuals. Having gone through so much as a race, if we’re seen as anything less than strong, it means we’re weak. If we don’t pray and ask for healing, it means we don’t trust that God will fight our battles. Subconsciously, we’re taught to keep everything inside no matter how hard it is. The stigma has made it difficult for Black people to be vulnerable and not be afraid of living in our truth. When we’re not vulnerable and having conversations about being Black and depressed, we lash out against one another, put each other down, resort to crime, or find a remedy to temporarily “fix” ourselves such as drinking.
After getting to an even lower point earlier last year, I finally decided enough was enough. I became tired of waking up every day not wanting to get out of bed, of crying myself to sleep, of oppressive thoughts swarming in my head. I didn’t want to reinforce the stigma that Black people can’t suffer from depression. I needed to help myself before it drove to me a place that I couldn’t come back from.
I started seeing a counselor. When I brought the idea to my mother initially, she said going wouldn’t change anything, that I’d be paying for someone to do what God could do for free. To her, and many people in the Black community, seeking human help was a waste of resources. To me, it was about saving my life. It was about helping tap into the source of my depression, to learn how I might be able to manage it, and to get to a place where I wasn’t afraid to tell my deepest darkest thoughts out loud.. I was nervous during my first session with my counselor but he let me talk freely and openly about my depression without judgment. I finally felt like I could breathe and the weight that I had carried with me for almost my entire life slowly started to lift.
Depression is not something that you “fix”. It’s disease that’s not curable but can be managed with the proper care and treatment. I still have my moments where the voice inside my head gets the best of me but now I’m not afraid to talk to someone, live in my truth, or have conversations about the disease with my family and friends. I’m not scared to break the stigma of being Black and depressed.
I’m a firm believer that prayer can change things but it isn’t the only source that can help someone’s healing process. There are multiple sources provided such as counseling, group therapy, hotlines, etc. that can be crucial to overcoming and managing depression.
The Black community must be more receptive of having conversations and dialogue about mental health. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help to overcome demons. Being vulnerable about the things you’ve gone through doesn’t make you weak, it doesn’t make you crazy, it doesn’t make you any less than of a human being.