A few weeks back we sat down with Jason Jules, a man who exudes style and confidence, to get his take on depression and mental illness. What we thought was going to to be a bit of a conversation became humbling as we sat back and just let him talk uninterrupted.
Depends what you mean by mental illness. I've never been sectioned or prescribed anti-depressants. But I have reached out and got help from what I call I head doctor. I've also been told by family doctors that I was imagining things and was 'perhaps delusional' when I’d try to tell them how I felt.
A world where you are constantly regarded as 'other'
I think a lot of health practitioners have a 'judge a book by the cover' syndrome and can't see the patient in front of them behind the presence of a young black male. They can see them, but they can't hear them. For years I would speak to my family doctor about feeling tired. I told her I felt tired all the time and that I often had to take naps during the day. I told her I suffered from cloudy thinking and often couldn't find the right words to finish sentences during conversations. I told her all that and despite that fact that my blood reports showed I suffered from pernicious anaemia, she insisted on asking about my work and my relationship and suggesting that I was 'perhaps depressed'. All my symptoms, I later found out were the result of that single blood disorder but for some reason, she was exclusively focused on my mental health – or, as far as she was concerned, the lack thereof.
But I knew what depression looked like - or a milder version of depression - because quite a few years prior I had found myself right in the middle of one. I later realized that I suffered a deep 'culture shock' when I'd spent three months in New York once and came back to London full of doubt and totally devoid of confidence. It was then that a friend of mine told me about her 'head doctor' - a holistic health practitioner called Souzic. "She’s amazing," my friend said. "She really believes that therapy doesn't need to be this long thing that takes years. You should go see her." After a few sessions and some serious shedding of tears, Souzic helped me out of that space completely. Meeting her also helped me realize that just as modern life requires us to have a dentist, a barber and a personal trainer in some cases – everyone should have a head doctor. We all need someone to talk to, someone with no hidden interests or agendas, someone with some expertise in the field. See your barber every two weeks? Go see your head doctor once a month. Perhaps because she was a French woman living in a foreign country, or perhaps because she had survived a life-threatening cancer, or perhaps because she was on a primarily spiritual tip I instantly got the feeling that Souzic understood what it was like to live in a world where you were constantly regarded as "Other". I think that's why she was such an immediate and impactful help to the younger me.
We experience ourselves as young black males in mainstream society as different from how we perceive ourselves to be. We're often regarded as having less validity, less worth than others. When we have to function like this on a daily basis, knowing that even though we haven't elected to play the role of "Otherness" we are still generally regarded as people who don't share in the values of mainstream society. Eventually, we come to recognize that despite being 'universally' perceived as a threat, it's actually us who are the threatened ones. It was Ice Cube who described young black males as an 'endangered species'. What happens is that many of us end up sectioned, sedated and seen as crazy because we are trying to navigate our way through someone else's madness.
Get a good head doctor
In the short term, I would ensure that every black male has read by the age of 15 – Franz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. I think that's a starting point for getting us to recognize mainstream society's doublethink and how to stay sane and achieve our goals despite our place within it as the perennial outsider. We have to be aware of the definitions society tries to put on young black males, resist them at all times. Also, I would insist that every young black male do what they can to get a good head doctor.
If you are struggling mentally speak to a close one, a friend, family member, a neighbour. Or contact your local service, like Samaritans. You are not alone and together we can fight mental illness.