Aïcha Conde is ASPA’s head for the RDV division and she’s also an avid musician and YouTuber. What started as an interview about one of her recent videos, “WiseAïchaTalk Episode: A Message to ‘Depression’” evolved into a larger discussion about mental health in the African diaspora including topics like mental health stigma and multigenerational trauma. This is Part 2. In case you missed it, here’s the link to Part 1: https://lagrandeafrique.com/?p=1961&preview=true
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and cohesion.
LGA: Why do you think therapy and talking about mental health is so difficult for people in the diaspora in particular? Do you think that we are taught to brush away our mental health issues and if so, why? And how does that manifest itself?
AC: I think there’s room for both expressions, on one side being “we don’t have time for that in this house” and another side where families have adapted to different ways of thinking and parents who have been working and living in other countries for a long time, or even back home who are conscious and aware of emotions in a different way. Sometimes it’s based on their exposure to culture or education but for most families and people that I’ve been around it’s pretty much a narrative of people who work so hard and people who have to deal with so many struggles in life that no one has time to check in with their emotions. Things like depression or mental health are not prioritized. It doesn’t mean that no one cares, but you know, we need to eat. We need to make sure that everything’s okay in the family. There are larger things happening that have bigger direct implications on us having a roof over our head. So when you’re talking about stuff like that with your family, or you’re seeing your mom going to work 24/7 to provide for you and your family, you don’t have time to tell her “Hey Mom, I’m not feeling good”. It’s not even an ailment where you cut yourself or you broke a bone or you’re bruised or something, it’s not visible.
I think a lot of people in the diaspora, in our generation or even younger, sometimes we quiet ourselves. We assess the situation in our families and we’re looking and we’re like “How does my mental health fit into this picture, when my parents are trying to prioritize making sure that we’re good right now financially and that we have a roof over our head and food?”. There are cases where the parents are like “We don’t have time for that”. The kids will talk about it, but I also think that comes from the fact that some parents have gone through traumatic experiences. Especially when you look at the generation right before us, a lot of them have gone through so many different things like political instability, forced migration, but you’re also talking about a generation where a lot of them are kind of dead. They’re so traumatized by what they’ve been through that they’ve been taught to just keep pushing forward that they don’t really know how to be there for their kids when it comes to emotional health and mental health discussions. I think a lot of the time, it’s also fear. The parents don’t know what to say or what to do. What do you do when you don’t have the tools or resources to help your child? You either buy stuff or beat your child to make sure they’re behaving. You do what you know. Whenever I talk to my mates or anybody, I’m noticing that that’s a trend, nobody has time to check in on emotions, that’s not a priority. It’s just not.
LGA: Speaking of older generations having trauma, I watched this video about this woman studying a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) specific to the black community in the US*. She talks about multigenerational trauma, trauma that is passed down to younger generations. What are your thoughts on this?
AC: That’s a good question, and something I ask myself everyday. There are things you are feeling that come up for you, certain patterns that come up in your life that you may not realize are linked to your family’s patterns. The thing with older generations in the African diaspora [is that] they don’t want to talk about their traumatic experiences. A lot of times, you feel like you don’t know [much] about their lives before you were born. They don’t share a lot about their personal lives. And it might just be like you’re their kids and they’re surprised “You want to know?”. But I was very curious and would ask my mom [all kind of questions about her upbringings]. Because these are the things that impact how they parent you and things that you inherit. There are a lot of patterns that are appearing in my life that are probably linked to her life but I will never know until I try to peel the layers of onions and with African parents, you have to be respectful, you can’t be the little kid that asks too many questions.
LGA: What do you think about the concept of “praying away” mental health issues?
AC: We don’t know what kind of dynamic each individual has with God. But I’d like to hope that people can use different pathways to have a relationship with their spiritual selves and have a relationship with God and that doesn’t always mean praying in a traditional way that we know of. Connecting to God can happen outside of that. And for the people that don’t want to pray in the traditional way, it’s dangerous to say you have to pray it away. It’s going to work for everyone, one size does not fit all. I’m not saying God isn’t enough but the idea of him has been narrowed down to a construct that not everybody believes.
I think being religious and spiritual can help you through your journey of healing especially when it comes to mental health but the way that it’s usually constructed and advised to people is too narrow and not plentiful enough for people to get the healing that they deserve.
LGA: How do you think about mental health in terms of different identities as a black woman and a student? How do you feel like mental health issues permeate those different identities?
AC: I think that’s the whole journey and struggle. The intersections of our identities are the things that highlight the different battles that we have and whatever setting we go into.
But then when you’re talking about being a black woman in educational spaces, I think it’s very tough because a lot of us are… overachievers.
There’s a lot of black women that are not taking care of themselves. You see them putting all of this work, achieving all of these accolades, they’re on point in class, they know exactly what’s going and they look good too. But they’re not taking care of themselves in other ways. Where did they inherit that? They probably saw that in their families. Some of these things I saw from my aunts, women who work multiple jobs at a time just to provide and I’m like “yeah, that’s how I want to be, responsible, holding down the fort and taking care of the family.” But I never saw my aunt one time sit down and tell me she was going to see a counselor because she feels like her mental health is not good.
You’re trying to achieve your goal without realizing that it means sacrificing your mental health. I’ve met so many black women that are all in it until one day, something happens, and they just shut off. Or it manifests itself in a physical ailment. People start getting hormonal imbalances with their bodies, constant migraines, loss of appetite. These are warning signs that we’re not taking care of ourselves.
Literally, that’s what happened to me. I was going around killing the game for so long. I grew up without my parents, I came to the US when I was 8 years old. That’s when I made my first promise to myself, going back to the opening letter of the video. That’s when I promised myself that I was going to take care of myself no matter what because I knew that nobody gave a f*ck and nobody did. I did what I had to do for Aïcha. But when Aïcha finished with community college and I had a huge gap before I transferred to UCLA, that’s when I had my worst depression outbreak and I had a suicide attempt. Because I actually had the time now to actually listen to my body and listen to some of the things that my body was telling me. I couldn’t hear it [before] because I was so busy being an overachiever, having a high GPA, working two jobs while going to school full-time, and being a guardian to my younger brothers, buying food for the house, cleaning the house, handling the fort, making sure that everything’s on top. But then the one time you finally have a break from work and academics, you lose your f*cking mind because then all the years of torture that you’ve put yourself through [come out]. And you’re not happy. I think for black women specifically, I’m not going to say it’s for all of us because everyone is different but for me, it manifested itself in me like that. In the quietness, in the stillness. I think that’s why we find a lot of people who are overachievers who don’t want to have a break. They’re afraid of what’s going to come when they have nothing to do.
Your body retains everything. Your body is stressed, it’s tired. YOU are tired. Your spirit is tired. You’re not even keeping in check with yourself. And a lot of us don’t know how to do that. Oprah is the only black woman I can think of in a public setting who would talk about mental health in a public space. The women I grew up around were trying to make money to survive, they didn’t have time to sit around and talk about [their mental health]. There’s no time for that but you pick that up as a little black girl. You pick up that we need to be strong and especially in the States, looking at the rates of mass incarceration and police brutality. They target all black people, but especially black males and the women feel like they have to hold the fort down and be responsible.
Depression and mental health issues are all connected to those things. They’re linked to us recognizing that we’re not being good to ourselves. We’re not respecting or valuing our own voices. We’re not trusting our own intuition, and sometimes that happens with life experience.
Even in the [letter to myself] at the beginning [of the video], I promised to always listen to my voice and if I make a promise [to myself], I will keep it. Because if you can’t keep a promise to yourself, you can’t do nothing for anybody else. How would you feel if someone made a promise to you and then they don’t? These are things that I think are good tools in your path to healing.
LGA: How do we make this better? How do we check up on our strong friends? How do you help someone who doesn’t think they need help? What can you do?
AC: The first thing is that it’s always good to start with a regular conversation, an open one. Being very authentic and genuine. You’re going to have to be prepared for the fact that the person may not be ready for this conversation. And these are different things that you need to pick up on when you’re talking. When you go to help somebody, you have to prioritize helping somebody before you. So, don’t try to interject your personal bias too much. There’s lots of people who are genuinely well-intentioned but then they go into something to help people, but they end up trying to make peace with themselves for something they did before. You need to check yourself before you even get into a space where you want to help someone else. That’s a very selfless act that you’re about to do.
You start opening a dialogue and you can say “I’ve noticed that this thing has changed and I just wanted to check that all is well”. Now if the person isn’t into it, you can tell. And that would be the first sign that they’re not ready to push it. Don’t push it. They could push you away and if you’re a genuine, good friend you could actually lose the opportunity for that person to find healing [so] that you could actually help them. So, I actually don’t suggest you do this whole intervention where you’re like “You’re gonna get my help no matter what”. NO. That’s not how it works. Sometimes you’re not the person that is meant to help the other person.
I believe in God and I believe in spirituality. Sometimes God brings in strangers into people’s lives to help them. Sometimes strangers are better agents of change and healing than people you know in your life. I’ve had moments in my life where a stranger comes up to me and says something very meaningful that resonates with me at that particular moment in my life and I know that that’s God. It’s not your close friends most of the time that are jump-starting your healing. So I think you have to be careful. If you want to help somebody and you know that something is wrong, offer the help and find the best relevant convenient way to do that. But if you notice that they are not open to you helping them, that doesn’t mean that they’ll never get help. It just means that you are not the one for that time. You can keep trying, try different ways, or [simply let them know you are there for them]. If you do that, no one is going to fault you for that. Someone who is very hurt might still be angry with you for even questioning that they’re okay. That might happen.
If it’s really bad and the person’s having suicidal thoughts or the person is a danger to themselves that’s when your intervention needs to go into a whole other level. Call the right authorities – a parent, someone you know. It’s all based on how bad it is.
Really look at the situation: what does the person really need? What’s going on with them? What have you really noticed? And is it really bad enough to the point where you feel like you can step in? And can you step in? Or is maybe someone else better [equipped] to step in? And no one’s an expert on this: you can make mistakes. But I think that if you’re genuinely well intentioned and you want to help the people around you, try to find the best way (and one way doesn’t work for everyone). So maybe for one person having a conversation is going to work. Sometimes doing things that they love will be the conversation starter. When people have little moments of happiness and they’re actually sad and they know you well enough, sometimes they’ll open up. Opening the pathway to you, making sure they know that you’re a resource, but not forcing them to make you the one and only resource because then it’s not going to always work. So those are the tips I’d say would be helpful for changing, for helping people heal.
LGA: How do you check in with yourself? What does that mean to you?
AC: I think checking in with yourself is about finding the best way for you to be the most vulnerable and honest with yourself. For me, the mirror is a tool that I use for that because I have a lot of body issues and food issues so looking at myself in the mirror and seeing my reflection without any embellishments and really looking at myself in the eyes to see what I see back and saying that I’m happy with what I see and if I’m not happy with what I see. That’s my check-in [process]. Another thing I would do is usually I’ll write a song. When I don’t do music for a long time it’s a sign that something ain’t right or I’m really busy. Re-reading some of my old written songs or diary entries, that’s a check-in for myself as well.
It’s multiple different things you could do but it’s just based off of the person. I know sometimes, on purpose, I just sit down and talk to myself. It’s kinda weird. I think that’s good and also people, people are also really good too. I didn’t tell my brothers until four months after [my suicide attempt] and I noticed that every couple of months they would check in, like “are you good?”, “how are you doing with your mental health?”. Now they don’t do it as often because they can tell that I’ve transitioned out of that space. And I think they check in with me through my Wise Aïcha Talks as well. But people are also check-ins, you know, because people can ask certain questions and you’re like “hmm” so sometimes, having really good people around you [helps]. That’s why I think it’s really important to have a really curated circle of people around you because if they’re really good and they’re about you and sharing love with you, they’re actually going to trigger you to find healing for you personally. That’s how I think. Good people always influence good things in my life, so I want them in my life.
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