Mental Health: A Taboo in African Culture

Growing up, whenever I would feel sad about something, my mom would often speak to me softly and say, “God will prevail,” in Fon, our native language in Benin. She would use that same phrase to me when as a young adult, I would feel overwhelmed by challenging or traumatic events. Even to this day, when my anxiety causes me to spiral into overthinking and worrying, she simply tells me to relax and leave everything to God.

This anecdote is not meant to shine a light on the importance of religion in my family but rather to underline a serious problem that is not addressed enough in African culture: the awareness of mental health issues.

Mental health is a very delicate topic for Black people worldwide. As a result of centuries of oppression and constantly having to affirm ourselves in discriminatory systems, Black people have been forced to “keep their feelings in check” in order to be taken seriously and not be perceived as weak. Black women have been painted as the archetypal “strong Black woman” and are thus expected to put up with and overcome whichever emotional challenge comes their way. This results in them struggling constantly with day to day stress or being forced to remain in abusive relationships.

Whereas in the United States issues like anxiety and depression are known but frowned upon in the Black community, back home in Africa they are virtually non-existent. You just don’t talk about them. Whenever one expresses continuous feelings of chagrin, changing moods or despondency, they are instantly attributed to temporary sadness and the most common, tangible solution is prayer. Therapy is also not an option because why would you want to go air your dirty laundry and personal issues in front of a stranger?

The danger of holding on to these outdated views is that it perpetuates a stigma surrounding mental health that has been passed down through generations. The sad reality is, I cannot always have productive discussions about anxiety or depression with some of my relatives from back home because I know that they will simply not understand where I am coming from. When that happens, I have to remind myself that they don’t necessarily know better because they were raised differently than I was and they grew up in a world where owning and expressing your feelings was very often viewed as shameful and futile. Given that I was trapped in this exact narrative for many years, it took me a long time to find the courage to open up about my anxiety and even seek help for it.

Now, even though religion was a major part of my upbringing and I strongly rely on my faith today when I am not feeling my best, I think there is much to be said about additional ways to maintain one’s mental health. As an international student in the United States I got to experience much better systems to preserve my mental health than I did in Africa. While culture and tradition are factors that could make this difficult, I believe that applying some of those systems back home could result in lasting positive change regarding mental health awareness in Africa.

For one, it is okay to not always be okay! None of us are superhumans capable of tackling whatever challenge each day throws our way without ever being fazed. Additionally, therapy needs to be normalized. Going to visit a psychologist does not make you weak or sick. In fact, a therapy session can simply facilitate a space for you to learn more about yourself as an individual. I started going to therapy about a year ago and I can honestly say that it is one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself given that it has helped me uncover layers of my personality that I never even realized existed.

Protecting your mental health is not selfish or pointless; it’s your responsibility.

Picture of Alfreda Adote

Alfreda Adote

International Development Intern

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