When professional tennis player Naomi Osaka announced that she was withdrawing from the French Open to prioritize her mental health, there was a wave of responses, ranging from support to harsh criticism. While this made headlines for days following her announcement, conversations soon began to shift to focus on the stigma surrounding mental health.
Of course, Osaka wasn’t the first public figure to share her story. Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles recently shared how keenly she felt the “weight of the world” on her shoulders, resulting in her withdrawal from the women’s team final at the 2021 Summer Olympics. Actress and entrepreneur Selena Gomez has also been vocal about her bipolar diagnosis and the challenges she faced leading up to that moment.
As these and other courageous women of color have spoken about their personal journeys, a common theme has emerged: the shame imposed by the stigma that surrounds mental health in communities of color.
Should people of color stay silent and face mental health challenges without support because of the stigma, or should they speak out on the support they so badly need? This is the silent dilemma faced by those dealing with mental health challenges. But individuals are not the only ones looking at the issue—this dilemma has begun to shape conversations within companies about how to create safe spaces and how to support employees. Osaka, Biles, and Gomez all spoke about how they had to compartmentalize their professional lives while privately dealing with the reality and impact of their mental health.
Personally, learning about those women’s struggles—and their courage—gave me space to reflect on my journey and more boldly share about my experience.
I was twenty-two when I had my first anxiety attack, and it wasn’t my last. I had just started my first graduate school program. I was living in a different city from my parents, something that was hard as a first-generation Latina college student.
More attacks followed as I entered an unrelenting and unforgiving workforce. Growing up, not much was expected of me by my teachers, counselors, or athletic coaches, simply because I was Latina. Their disregard fueled an already intrinsic desire to prove naysayers wrong, a desire that motivated me set a high standard for myself to fully realize my capabilities, strengths, and purpose early on.
I realize now that all these factors eventually became self-imposed expectations that took their toll. There were moments when I felt like I was suffering in silence, but at the age of twenty, I decided to share my struggle with my parents. I learned that anxiety runs in our family. My parents’ grace allowed me to build the strength necessary to navigate adversity early on. I was privileged to be able to share with them and to ascertain those root causes. The anxieties that had previously made me feel like a failure became a badge of valor that I now embrace as part of the intersectionality of my identity.
This is not the case for everyone, unfortunately—the stigma around mental health doesn’t allow space for empathy, understanding, and support, leading many to suffer in silence for all of their life. In fact, while reading about these invisible “disabilities,” I learned that anxiety and depression—while highly underreported among communities of color—are the most prevalent conditions in those communities.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. As reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in ten American adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder between January and June 2019. In a February 2021 report from that same organization, it was revealed that four in ten US adults experienced such symptoms.
While that is a staggering number, what alarms me is the thought that there are people who are not reporting their issues because of the stigmas around mental health. Data from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that Black and brown communities were impacted by COVID at higher rates. Did their mental health struggles increase as well? If so, by how much? Because of the silent dilemma, we have no idea how grave the situation really is.
This makes it all the more vital that communities of color, and particularly women of color, feel able to share about their experiences and feelings. They don’t need to always carry the burden of pressure to “have it together.” But they do need to know how much we value their courage, their prioritization of mental health, and their efforts to shift the narrative. As more continue to share, we must prioritize and destigmatize mental health to no longer have this silent dilemma.
Resources You Should Know About
For those still struggling, know that you are not alone and that there is a wealth of resources and support available to you. Mental health is neither a crutch nor an impediment; it can help you cultivate a newfound strength as you live your best life.
Jennifer Vasquez is a multifaceted, bilingual executive supporting DEI strategies in STEM. She has more than thirteen years of hands-on experience in strategic planning, business development, diversity and inclusion initiatives, change management, organizational agility, partnership development, revenue generation, project management, integrated marketing communications strategy, digital campaigns, and corporate social responsibility.
Vasquez holds dual bachelor’s and dual master’s degrees in international development and Latin American and Caribbean studies and has been appointed to various commissions by the mayors of Miami; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles.