Op-Ed

Op-Ed: Why Do I Have "White People Problems"?

I'm African and I’m black and I suffer from anxiety. Why do I have “white people problems?”

Why do I have “white people problems?”

It was 3AM on a Sunday morning and I could not bring myself to sleep. I had been lying in bed for a few hours going over some terrible scenarios in my head. Basically my brain had decided it was a great time to contemplate all the improbable ways I could have died at that moment.

Yup, I was having an anxiety attack.

It was not my first one, so I eased into it. I took a few deep breaths hoping it would go away and that soon I would fall into a deep slumber but it wasn’t to be. I was still there, eyes wide open.

Desperate for a distraction, I reached for my phone. I discovered that two of my friends were still online, bingo!

“Why are you awake?” one of them asks. I answer that I couldn’t sleep after watching back-to-back episodes of Narcos. We caught up on various areas of our lives and then about an hour later, he inquired again, “so why are you still up?”

Annoyed, mostly at myself, I quickly typed out one word, "Anxiety."

“Why do you have white people problems?😂” he asked with ‘a tears of joy’ emoji adjunct.

I froze for a few seconds as I searched for an answer which I could not seem to find at the time. This led to more frustration and I bought into his line of thought for a while.

 

What is so bad about my life that I should be going through this? I mean people are out there with real problems. I had spent my Saturday relaxing, mostly researching on the kinds of protein shakes and smoothies I could make with my new blender. I was not particularly worried about anything significant at that time like exams or bills, so what was my problem? Let’s just say I had given up on falling asleep that night and instead I focused my energy on figuring out if I was entitled to having such problems.

Every time I have experienced an anxiety attack I have felt utterly alone, as if no one else around me could understand or possibly relate to what I was going through. It took me a long time to tell anyone that I had a problem, partly because I did not want to seem fragile in front of my family and friends.

This is linked to the fact that in African or black communities, mental illnesses are generally viewed as a non-issue. Being strong is valued and voicing out your inner pain is seen as a sign of weakness. Anyone suffering from anxiety right now will tell you that it’s definitely not made-up. There is a perception that depression and anxiety are not African problems, insinuating that perhaps we are not privileged enough to face them. There is also a stigma associated with seeking treatment and it is mostly seen as a last resort. These are the kind of negative stereotypes that prevent many people from acknowledging their psychological problems let alone getting help and actually conquering them.

I will admit that occasionally I get these anxiety attacks when I am under pressure or feeling stressed, even subconsciously. What I will not do, however, is pretend that it did not happen. I am African and I’m black and I suffer from anxiety. I am pretty sure I am not the only black person out there who is going through this and it makes no sense for us to act as if these problems do not apply to us. These mindsets towards mental illness only interfere with the recovery of so many people in our communities who could instead be choosing to self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

According to the Kenya Mental Health Policy, which was published in 2016, about 20 to 40 per cent of those seeking outpatient services in hospitals have one or more mental disorders. There are a number of organizations in Kenya working to dispel negative attitudes on mental health and offering support to those who need it. But as of now it’s difficult to know what progress they are making in that quest. I suppose it should all begin with us as individuals. Depression and anxiety do not discriminate as to whom they affect, and we should try to be honest and open about these issues with ourselves and the people close to us as well.

If there’s anything that helps in the moment, though, it’s music. I love to listen to “Quiet” by John Mayer, a song that any person with anxiety or insomnia would instantly relate to. It is soothing, like a lullaby. He wrote the song more than fifteen years ago but it still sounds brand new in all of my sleepless nights. The fact that John Mayer has openly discussed his own struggle with anxiety and panic attacks also helps me feel less alone in this battle. After all, we are just humans with “human people problems.”

Interview
Stella Mwangi. Image courtesy of the artist.

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