Breaking the Stigma: Talia's Story
July is Minority Mental Health Month, and as a mental health advocate of Caribbean descent, I'm acutely aware of the deep stigma around mental health in my culture and community. This July, I want to shine a light on mental health stories that often go untold. I’ll start with talented writer Talia Leacock-Campbell, who hails from Barbados.
Growing up in Barbados, I lived less than 10 minutes away from one of the island’s mental institutions. This meant that I often saw people with mental illness in our area. Conversations in my home around people with mental health issues weren’t nuanced or deep. We simply acknowledged that people who suffered from mental illnesses “weren’t all there” or “weren’t quite right.” Back then, we didn’t have politically correct and compassionate language for people with mental health issues. They were just “madmen.” I don’t think the intent of these discussions and labels were ever malicious or hateful. There was simply a lack of understanding.
I had no concept of illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, though reflecting now, I could tell that some of the people I saw from the mental institution were likely suffering with these disorders and others like them. What I did know was that those patients were seen as undesirable, troublesome, sometimes even dangerous. So, I grew up wary and afraid of them, and very certain that I never wanted to be a “madman” myself.
When did you first realize the importance of your mental health?
Looking back, I think I’ve always suffered from anxiety. I was very prone to worry – hyper-cautious, afraid of nearly everything, and very easily upset. Most people just called me “soft.” I didn’t really recognize that my mental health was something that was beyond a personality trait until my late teens. My adolescence was shadowed by a lot of sexual trauma, and it was only after I finally got away from my abuser and saw a therapist that I realized that my “softness” and intense mood swings and weepiness and hyper-vigilance weren’t just naturally a part of who I was. That was the first time I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and it rocked my world. I was hardly functional, I lost 10 pounds in a matter of weeks, and I started floundering in school. I realized that if I didn’t take care of my mental health that I was going to lose myself in my illness.
What obstacles did you encounter in an effort to care for your mental health?
There was so much shame for me around my mental health. While I was relieved that my symptoms weren’t just glaring character flaws, I felt so much distress about the labels of mental illness. It made me feel defective, and sometimes that kept me from doing the work and seeking the help I needed to take care of myself. Then there’s the expense. Therapy can cost an arm and a leg, and for a long time, I just didn’t have a therapist because it didn’t fit my budget. Then when I had the income, I lived in a place where finding a Black woman therapist was nearly impossible. For me, it’s extremely important that my therapist can understand the nuances of Blackness and mental illness and sexual trauma because the way those experiences play out in my life are very specific explicitly because of my race and culture. So, that was another challenge as well.
Is mental health discussed within your family? How about with your friends?
It’s definitely a topic that comes up in my family and friends circles. I’ve had really great conversations with my mother, who has been a support for me and my younger sister who struggles with anxiety issues as well. My husband is extremely understanding and supportive, and my mother-in-law is a social worker who works specifically with people with substance use and mental health issues. Amongst my friends, the subject isn’t taboo. I’ve grown to be candid about my mental health, and I think that makes it easy for other people to talk to me about how I’m doing and how they’re doing as well.
How does your family history and country of origin inform your mental health journey?
My extended family has always been tough on “soft” people. It’s not typical for them to be particularly expressive of their love or emotions, and that made me grow up feeling a little bit odd for always being so sensitive and emotional. So, when depression first started pulling me into dark emotions and I was constantly crying, I was really hard on myself about it. I’ve spent a lot of time unlearning my resistance to my emotions and accepting that my sensitivity – whether caused by depression or just my healthy emotions – isn’t a point of shame.
What do you wish people in your community understood about mental health?
Speaking of the Caribbean community in general, I wish that people would stop treating mental health so differently from physical health. The idea that people could pray away their depression or anxiety or any other mental illness is absurd. I also wish that our people didn’t see mental illness as weakness that people need to just “toughen up and soldier through.” To be perfectly frank, I think both those attitudes are costing people their lives – figuratively and literally. There are people who are literally crying out for help, fighting for a reason to keep living and hoping that someone will see their pain, and they are being told to just “man up” and “be grateful that they don’t have it worse.” I don’t think that any of those attitudes are malicious. It’s really just a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to listen. I sometimes wonder if some of the people who are so adamant about praying away and soldiering through mental illness have put up walls around mental health concerns of their own and are afraid that by acknowledging other people’s fight for wellness they’d have to face their own.
More about Talia
A hopeless romantic whose longest love affair has been with the written word, Talia Leacock-Campbell has dedicated her life to helping brilliant people package their brightest ideas into words. A professional writing graduate with a chameleon-like ability to capture voices and a deep innate empathy, Talia has developed a reputation for weaving emotional resonance and powerful impact into her work. Over the past five years, she has grown from a self-titled, one-woman operation into a boutique agency staffed entirely by women writers who share her respect for and grasp on the power of words. Beyond her passion for writing, Talia is a lover of seafood, stilettos, and all things Shonda Rhimes.
Follow her on all platforms @talialeacock