At present, we are witnessing perhaps the most widespread and diverse social movement related to race and identity issues in history, sparked by a far-reaching and unifying realization of the unacceptable, and at-times-deadly, injustices experienced by minorities and the marginalized globally. Thus, discussing mental health awareness in the context of minority experience is cast into a spotlight.
As a gay black man, and co-founder of the mental health organization You Alright Mate?, one approach I take to conceptualize mental health is utilizing a tool we call the Esteem Compass. It aids in viewing potential mental health triggers and solutions from angles that form a holistic picture of the components that make up personal wellness.
The Esteem Compass
In this article, in collaboration with my brother Wesley Alston who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2011, we explore how our compass might be applied to experiences as a minority.
We’ve focused on a few specific experiences that relate to who we are directly, versus attempting to unpack all possible minority experiences, which in the context of identity issues would be unfairly presumptuous. We suggest readers consider how the pillars of our Esteem Compass apply in the context of their own experiences.
The Esteem Compass consists of four pillars, to provide a bird’s eye view of potential factors in mental health scenarios. It served as a quick-glance reference for what may be lying outside the primary scope of consideration of an individual, practitioner, or workplace leader when appraising mental health support options.
We also encourage individuals, practitioners and employers to embrace the Esteem Compass philosophy when seeking to create holistic personal or organizational mental health strategies, with the goal of taking every pillar into consideration. The goal isn’t to have the best answer for each pillar from day one, but to encourage thought, discussion, and eventual solutions related to various topics that fall into each category.
One potential aspect of minority experience is exposure to statistical or stereotypical suggestions that your demographic is not expected to achieve “as much” as people born into privileged identities. This can cause an individual to internalize self-defeating narratives about their possibilities in life.
One method for managing personal responses to uninspiring statistics and stereotypes that may seem simple, but is valuable, is to perform what we’ll call a “de-stigma search” for information that contradicts the offending statistic or stereotype. One problematic stereotype might be that “minorities do not lead major companies”.
A de-stigma search can be consulting with friends, family or colleagues about prominent minority business leaders they are familiar with, or doing a simple Google search for minorities that run Fortune 500 Companies, which will turn up names like Lowes’ CEO Marvin Ellison, who is Black; Apple CEO Tim Cook who is gay, or Gap CEO Sonia Syngal who is Indian-born and female.
While this particular search won’t, for example, turn up results showing every possible minority holding a seat as a Fortune 500 CEO, it is still valuable as a minority to know where other minorities have broken barriers, because it evidences that progress is not only possible but a reality. This can help a minority individual remain confident about lofty aims and remove self-limiting narratives that get in the way of
optimism, ambition, and prosperity.
There are endless statistics and stereotypes about many identities; the trick is to not see the perceived trend as a rule, but as an opportunity to learn the history of barrier breaking, and get creative, confident and optimistic about how your own journey might lead to success.
An aspect of Relational Esteem is feeling you have a community to be a part of that accepts you for you. As a minority, sometimes we surround ourselves with people like us, and other times with our complete opposites. Either situation can create either harmony or stress in our lives.
A tip for leveraging community as a supportive element in our lives is to embrace both the familiar and the diverse, while distancing ourselves from people or groups who we deem toxic. Ultimately, having a group of people, whether friends, colleagues, neighbors or online groups, who we can not only relax and have fun with, but also share our perspectives with in a constructive way without feeling unheard, helps us grow.
Most of us do this instinctively, but for those who feel they lack these support systems, searching for groups that align with our values is a great way to start building a new social network if one feels something is missing in this corner of their life.
There can also be stress as a racial minority around having never been completely “in touch” with the culture that we come from, and this can be highlighted in times of racial distress. Moments like this are a great opportunity to get familiar with literature and media that connect you to your roots and, of course, reach out to peers, family and colleagues within your minority group to establish authentic relationships which can help you feel whole by opening yourself up to your origins.
Black-run TheRoot.com also features several lists of black literature , including this list of 7 books that center black legacies, offering a way to positively connect with Black achievements throughout history.
Taking care of the mind and emotions is a core component of mental health, and as a minority, sometimes this means needing to connect with peers, practitioners or groups who have been through the same mental health journeys as us in relation to minority experience.
There are endless online tools and groups to connect with for mental health support tailored to one’s specific experience, ranging from the culturally sensitive mental health approach employed by Henry Health, to LGBTQ+ focused organizations such as the Trevor Project, which focus on mental health solutions targeting specific demographics. There is also value in perusing the wealth of resources, media and literature created by minorities.
Self.com’s Health Director Zahra Barnes compiled a list titled “44 Mental Health Resources for Black People Trying to Survive In This Country [US]”, which in addition to listing Black brands, organizations and therapy networks, features names to follow, such as Alexandre Elle whose Instagram feed offers affirmations and reminders like “We are never alone in our struggles” and “You don’t have to be okay. Healing isn’t linear,” or
Donno Oriowo, whose Instagram feed “de-stigmatizes Black sexuality and relationships.”
Looking after one’s body, finances, daily personal management, employment and career help to cultivate a sense of functional security.
In the physical health context, of the common fears minorities of all types have is that certain healthcare groups or “the system” is “out to get” them. One source of this distrust in the black community is the incredibly unethical Tuskegee Study that took place from 1932-1972, which told black men they were being treated for “bad blood”, including syphilis, while in truth not treating the study participants, resulting in familial transmission of the disease, death and other bad outcomes.
When the study’s unethical practices were made public, trust among the black community in the American
healthcare system was affected, contributing to lingering and understandable resistance towards seeking necessary health care from a potentially unethical medical system. With such instances, not only Black minorities, but minorities of all sorts have reason to develop paranoia around receiving health care. At the same time, many modern medical healthcare systems are limited in terms of the types of treatments they put forth.
For example, in Time magazine’s current edition on mental health, there’s a list of prescription drug-free approaches for managing depression, but zero mention of the role of amino acid supplements such as GABA, Tyrosine and 5-HTP can play in managing some mood imbalances.
I personally successfully adopted amino acid therapy for mood issues that stemmed from food allergies 6 years ago, and have never needed to see a therapist or be prescribed anti-depressants. However, that success was completely self-guided, and no doctors at that time had suggested I look into amino acid supplementation.
This is not to suggest that standard medical solutions aren’t necessary for many, but does lead to a final tip for minorities: always practice self-advocacy when dealing with both your mental health and your physical health. While mainstream medical advice tends to label “alternative health” as not well-researched enough to be officially validated, it is understandable not to be entirely trusting of conventional health arenas.
Practicing self-advocacy means always sourcing second opinions and conducting your own research to understand treatments that are perhaps not offered in a traditional doctor’s office, while also ensuring that you don’t let paranoia get the best of you to the point that you never seek necessary medical treatment.
Finding a balance between trust in external guidance versus relying on one’s own abilities, especially with one’s health, is very delicate. But an individual with experiences, or fears, unique to their inter-sectional identities perhaps owes it to themselves to employ both measures when living in a world that hasn’t quite fully earned our trust. This of course can not be categorized as official medical advice, but
one has to find it within themselves to know when there is value in appraising every possible solution there is available to them, and creating their trusted health network autonomously versus embracing the first thing put in front of them.
Other aspects of Practical Esteem include financial health, which Henry Health has great content on, and career, which you can make a priority by seeking employers proactively supporting inclusive Employee Resource Groups and employing senior leaders from minority backgrounds.
If you are experiencing stress related to the practical arenas of your life as a minority, know that there are support tools and resources out there in the world, and don’t hesitate to reach out to any of the organizations mentioned in this issue for help navigating those options.
About the authors
Johnny Quinn Alston and Wesley Alston are two of the four co-founders of You Alright Mate?, an organization that merges sensibilities from both the creative and business worlds to innovate in mental health. Aside from Johnny’s personal experience with food sensitivity-related mood issues, Wesley Alston was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2011, sparking a journey where the brothers would come to know You Alright Mate? co-founder Neil Laybourn, one half of the renowned “Stranger on the Bridge” story. In collaboration with Neil, Petra Velzeboer and others in the mental health community, You Alright Mate applies outside-the-box thinking to mental health problem solving.