What happened to our agency?

By cahleb derry

“I don’t need to go to no doctor.”

“There ain’t nothing wrong with that boy.”

“Get over it.”

“Stop being a pussy.”

“Stay on the four-year plan.”

The words reverberate in my head like a familiar tune—the short yet powerful phrases flawlessly explain the stigmas of mental health that exist within the black community. For many black families, mental health is a myth. However, as black families continue to attach stigmas to mental health and self-care, we strip away our black children’s agency. “There’s no such thing as a dumb question,” unless it shows weakness, right? Let me explain.

I attended an elite private boarding school in New England on a full scholarship. Shortly after arriving on the green leafy campus, I noticed the stark contrast between me and my wealthier white classmates who had been private school educated their whole life. Most obviously, they had medication for everything—they were 14 year-olds diagnosed with every disorder, on just about every pill from A to Z—or A(dderall) to X(anax). More importantly, however, the ones who were not on medication were hyperaware and conscious of their mental health, even as young adolescents. They knew how to articulate their discomfort and anxiety, and never hesitated to tell a teacher when they were overwhelmed. Rich white students were getting their tests postponed, and their projects moved. But I swallowed my pride and remembered the words that were ingrained into me by my father—“get over it.”

I could not help but feel an inherent connection between this hyperawareness of mental state and entitlement to agency, educational success and recognition. This became especially apparent when during my senior fall, I opened up my report card after a grueling fall semester to a ‘B+’ in my AP science class. I was absolutely appalled—I had been banking on an A in the class—and knew I had earned it—to achieve the GPA I was aiming for. In that moment, I made the split second decision to email my teacher and demand that my grade be reevaluated. Perhaps this sudden burst of agency stemmed from me being a senior with his eyes set on getting into Harvard, but regardless, she responded within minutes—my grade change was reflected days later.

Growing up, I was constantly blind to the stigmas attached to mental health in my family. However, there laid a constant reluctance to go to the doctor—a constant reluctance to think about coping strategies, or self-care, or exhaustion. There loomed this hesitation to ask for help—or to take a day off. Anything that communicated weakness or faltering was denounced. Much of this stems from the pride of black folk who originate from ancestors who endured unimaginable pain—200+ years of it to be exact—that has yet to cease. Our ancestors were raped, whipped, mutilated, and murdered for 200 years in order for us to live the lives we live today, fight the incessant fights we fight, and exist in the spaces we exist in now. As a result, we are taught that to take a break, complain or reveal weaknesses or flaws would not only be out of character, but disrespectful. Our history as oppressed and enslaved people is supposed to ingrain within us a resistance to anything and everything.

“Those whities can’t handle shit. That’s why they need them pills.”

“You can’t take time off.”

“Gap year’s are for those rich white kids.”

However, our history actually does quite the opposite. Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, argues that “vicarious trauma triggered by graphic images of racism, combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.” Thus, our history as an oppressed and disenfranchised people has actually created something equivalent to PTSD. This is not to say that black people are not immensely strong—we are a people who have endured oppression like no other, and those experiences have instilled within us an inherent and intangible power. However, these experiences also package us with burdens that other peoples do not have to endure and consequently should encourage us to seek more help, ask more questions and take more moments to care for ourselves. If we keep telling our black children that they have to “suck it up and get over it,” they will not reach their full potential. Telling our children that they have to do all by themselves is not the way to engender success within our community, nor is it the way to fulfill the prophecy that our ancestors worked for

Cahleb Derry is currently a freshman at Harvard University. He is studying Social Studies and is interested in educational policy reform and addressing educational achievement gaps within public schools in the US through litigation. 


To learn more about mental health in the black community and to take action:

Ourselves | Black 

Black & African American Communities and Mental Health

An Open Letter to Black Women About Mental Health 

Black Mental Health Isn't the Same as White Mental Health

The Steve Fund