Sometime last spring or summer is when she knew she needed help.
That was when Detroiter Malikah Garner, 32, wife and mother of two young boys, had had enough of carrying the invisible weight of motherhood, family, unresolved childhood pain, cultural expectations and her career solely on her petite (but resilient) shoulders. So Garner sought out the help of a therapist last summer to unburden some of life’s heavy loads.
“I knew this [was] getting way too intense for me when it was really hard to get out of bed,” Garner told the Michigan Chronicle during a Zoom call from her home where her children could be heard playing in the background. “[I] had to lay there for a while [and] really coach myself to get ready and get out for the day.”
The busy stay-at-home mother’s days last year looked a bit different. She worked previously as a project manager for an auto manufacturer and increasingly became stressed at a toxic work situation and at home where she helped run the household with her husband while rearing their then three- and seven-year-old sons.
“At work is when I began to go to the bathroom to decompress or I would have to ‘run to my car’ to get something,” she said using air quotes. “Really, I was going to cry.”
The usually bubbly Garner (who her husband says doesn’t have a serious bone in her body) noticed the need to take frequent moments to “escape the reality” of life around her and she had constant negative thoughts.
“I was like, OK this is getting pretty bad… everything felt overwhelming,” she said. “I am a lighthearted person and I was very emotional and constantly in a triggering state.”
Luckily, Garner sought therapy and connected with a local therapist in July last year. Her journey to find the right therapist who looked like Garner didn’t come that easy, though. She had been looking for a Black therapist since 2018; about 12 years ago she found a white woman and later a Black male therapist but nothing clicked until 2019 when she met her current counselor who is also a Black woman.
Garner, who is also a mommy ambassador for the local Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association [BMBFA] said that she experienced a bit of postpartum depression after her first child, and learning to heal from that, along with other life struggles along the way, was something she unpacked. She also had to unlearn years of unintentional conditioning that taught her that going to therapy was for other people outside of her cultural community.
“Previously, that was not something that I thought was available to me or something that I needed,” Garner said, adding that she was first exposed to the tangible concept of going to therapy while in college when her fellow white counterparts casually mentioned it. “Mental health support was not something discussed in my family or community. It is not something I heard at school … or in the city as a teenager.”
As her long box braids swung down past her shoulders, gently danced with each gesture, Garner’s conversation flowed with ease as she talked about these weighty topics, including the idea that therapy can be “foreign” to the older Black community– as it was to her own mother when she told her she was in therapy.
“They were in survival mode, I get it,” Garner said of previous generations who might not have the capacity to always self-evaluate, or the bandwidth, or finances, to seek out mental health resources beyond the church pew, small talk or weekend beauty/barber shop intimate conversations. “But then when it comes to the younger generation we are further removed from historical trauma: American chattel slavery. And we have more resources and we’re just further removed from the experience of this idea that Black people don’t go to therapy or that it is for white people. We build on the previous generation and learn and grow.”
Denise Johnson, a Detroit-based licensed master social worker, said that the “time has passed” that Black Americans or Black people were hesitant about seeking out services for mental health.
Johnson said it is especially true in today’s climate with the pandemic, racial unrest, economic and societal woes, relationship issues and a bevy of other problems which are now intensified.
“A lot of Blacks had to be laid off [or] take lower paying jobs — those are the things happening,” the therapist of 25 years said. “Everything factors into what goes on. You have anxiety for social injustice; things like that and you have to keep on functioning with that anxiety, [which is] high among Blacks right now.”
Most of Johnson’s clients are local and Black, and she said many times they seek out Black therapists like herself, because of a certain relatability.
“I think there is a bond [that] you understand what might be going on like with social injustice. You can connect right away,” she said.
A number of Johnson’s clients see her to talk about handling relationship issues, communication differences and parenting.
“I think the only struggle with parenting at this particular time is people finding it difficult to keep their children home,” she said. “There is a lot of depression and anxiety around that and trying to work or find work. And the computers … [it] looks like children are not handling it as well as anticipated.”
She added on a larger scale, she sees Black America trying to come together more, especially with the younger Black generation.
“I think they’re setting the tone for what’s to come among Black America,” she said, in terms of voting and participating more in democracy. “They’re handling it in a different way than their parents and grandparents,” adding that the younger generation is also more open to getting mental help if needed. “I think as far as mental health is concerned I think it’s the realization of how important mental health is — not something you have to be ashamed of. The clients that see me, they are resilient. They want to be able to handle what’s going on, they want to keep their relationships going. They want to keep their family going; they are willing to do the work.”
Garner, who goes to a different local therapist, said that as a product of a single-mom household she unearthed a lot of her experiences growing up and how that plays a role in how she relates with her own family. She put in the work with her therapist and learned that she doesn’t have to do it all, nor should she.
“Because of therapy oftentimes you are not aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said. “Most of us are on autopilot. That is one of the beautiful things about getting further in my mental health journey. You can… evaluate what you are doing and show up as what you really want to be and not who you are forced to be or programmed or what you thought you had to be. I try not to carry it all and sometimes that also means advocating for myself in the household.”
If finances are preventing you from finding help, contact a local health or mental health clinic or your local government to see what services you qualify for. You can find contact information online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or by calling the National Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).