Growing up as a first-generation Asian American, I’ve often been left questioning the empty praises of resilience and the occasional race-blind comments around my mental health struggles. Between the well-meant, “You’re so strong, sweetie,” and the dubious, “I don’t care if you are white, Black, or purple,” there has always been a toxic aftertaste behind the responses to my mental health experience as a person of color.
And I’m not alone. While advancements in mental health services for historically marginalized communities have improved vastly in previous years, there is a needed shift in how we talk about Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) mental health. This BIPOC Mental Health Month, think and replace your words before uttering these three common sayings about your BIPOC friend’s mental health.
1. “Oh, you’re so strong for going through this”
The genuine and goodhearted applause for the suffering of BIPOC folks isn’t as helpful as you might think it is. In the mental health world, the word “resilience” gets thrown around to reference the ability to withstand or cope emotionally in times of difficulty. However, BIPOC folks shouldn’t have to put up with these difficulties in the first place.
Especially when considering the combination of systemic and social violence that these communities face every day of their lives, it is important to realize that BIPOC folks aren’t innately stronger – they are forced to be resilient. This is why there is something particularly cruel – even when it’s intended to do the opposite – about continuing to encourage strength while the true culprit continues to run rampant.
2. “I don’t see you as (race); I see you as a human being”
You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. “There is only one race: human.”
The problem with this statement is that it is based on the assumption that we live in a post-racial society. This is simply not true. In a world where white Americans’ wealth per capita is 6 times the wealth of Black Americans and students of color have less access to advanced classes, post-racial America is a myth.
In a mental health context, this statement ignores the large racial disparities that often lead to inequities in access to care. Research shows that BIPOC folks are less likely to have access to mental health services and less likely to seek out services. Additionally, denying that a person’s race had to do with their traumatizing experience or trying to de-emphasize race invalidates and perpetuates further harm.
> 3. “You seem really upset, maybe you should try some self-care or calming exercises”
Whether it’s done explicitly or implicitly, telling BIPOC folks to calm down often minimizes the suffering and pain they endure. Additionally, these types of statements place individual responsibility of wellness and happiness on these communities to “take care of themselves” and take away from systems causing harm.
Individual self-care and emotional regulation can be beneficial, but these can also limit solutions to systemic violence. This July, Mental Health America’s 2023 BIPOC Mental Health campaign is Culture, Community, and Connection. Community care has existed within BIPOC and other spaces of marginalized folks for decades.
Crystal Widado is a member of the 2022-2023 Mental Health America Young Leaders Council. Learn more about the Young Leaders Council.