Lauren Carson created Black Girls Smile to promote mental health literacy in African-American communities and end a culture of silence and suffering
By Denise Mann
If there had been a group like Black Girls Smile when Lauren Carson was growing up in Atlanta, she likely would have felt less alone.
“My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative championed by President Barack Obama, seeks to empower young African-American men and boys, but what about girls? …. I felt like I had to step up to the plate,” says Carson, who is now 29.
And that she did. Carson started her nonprofit in 2012 while living in New York City and working at a dream job on Wall Street. She recently moved back home to devote more time, bandwidth, and resources to the organization and its efforts to strengthen the emotional health of young black women.
Now she spends her days working at a start-up financial software firm and her evenings, weekends and other pockets of free time working on making more black girls smile.
Silence and Suffering
Carson recalls finding little support when “irritability, anger, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness” intensified during her teen years. She suspected she was dealing with depression, but couldn’t get her parents to take her concerns seriously.
Given the usual tumult of the teen years, perhaps it’s not surprising that her symptoms were initially attributed to adolescent angst—even though depression runs in her family and her father is a medical doctor. When she did get an official diagnosis at age 15, it was something of a relief, but also brought a sense of shame and intensified her feelings of isolation.
Carson believes that while stigma may be lifting in some segments of society, depression and other mental health conditions are still seen in the African-American community as a sign of weakness or as a character flaw, and therefore are often swept under the rug.
As Carson explains it, there’s a sentiment that personal struggles with depression take a back seat to social issues that have plagued the African-Americans, such as racism and discrimination. That has resulted in a culture of silence and suffering, she says.
“Depression is not something that we talk about or feel comfortable discussing in my community,” she says. “It’s seen as a shameful thing, and it’s pervasive that you should pray and take your problems to the church because mental illness and depression aren’t real issues.”
“Depression is not something that we talk about or feel comfortable discussing in my community,”
While 18.6 percent of black adults live with a mental health condition, compared with 19.3 of white adults, black individuals are less likely than white counterparts to seek treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Part of Carson’s mission is to break down those barriers by getting young women in distress to open up to each other, their friends, and their family.
Find Your ‘Woosah’
Carson regularly sees a psychiatrist for talk therapy and takes medication to keep symptoms at bay, but she also relies on awareness about her condition and useful coping strategies to truly help her stay the course
Bolstering self-care and developing personalized coping techniques are a core part of Black Girls Smile’s mission.
“Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II would rub his ears and chant ‘Woosah,’ ” Carson notes, referring to the movie character’s method of calming himself down. “Some people count to 10, and some people dance. These are coping techniques and everyone needs them.”
“Some people count to 10, and some people dance. These are coping techniques and everyone needs them.”
She also emphasizes the importance of prevention—taking action before things get too bad.
“We emphasize taking ownership of your mental health and wellness all of the time,” she says.
Carson recalls her own pattern of seeing a therapist during depressive episodes , then quitting as soon as she felt better. Now she sees letting your guard down when things seem fine as something of an open invitation to mood symptoms.
She learned that the hard way at the University of Virginia, where she earned a BA in psychology. Shortly after joining the girl’s varsity basketball team in the middle of her freshman year, she crashed into a deeply dark and hopeless place.
“There was a lot on my plate, including a very rigorous course load and a lot of responsibility,” she says. At the same time, her father was called to active duty in Iraq.
“Everything was coming to a head,” she recalls. “Being on the basketball team, there was practice, travel and study hall. My priorities and responsibilities changed quickly, and I didn’t have things in place to assist me with managing, both literally and mentally.”
She pressured herself to pretend everything was OK, even though it wasn’t.
“Being in college and the school setting, you see other people thriving and you are drowning, and that kind of compounds things and your perspective goes out the window,” she says.
Carson had a privileged upbringing, a good education, and access to resources and support. Still, learning to live with her diagnosis was an uphill trek that almost cost her life.
“I was very lacking on how to deal with difficult stuff because no one talked about it,” she reflects.
“I was very lacking on how to deal with difficult stuff because no one talked about it,”
She’s well aware that other young women in the African-American community don’t have half of what she did. Lack of money, lack of transportation, and a limited pool of practitioners make it hard enough to get effective mental health care for many. Finding psychotherapists who fully understand the realities of growing up black in America—otherwise known as “culturally competent” practitioners—can be even harder.
Although there’s never any guarantee of a good fit with a particular therapist, it can be comforting to start with someone who looks like you and shares your background.
“I was fortunate to grow up in Atlanta where there are a plethora of African-American mental health professionals, but in Charlottesville, there weren’t any,” Carson says of her time at UVA.
That’s why Black Girls Smile provides a vetted list of mental health providers who are racially and culturally sensitive. The organization also offers “healing scholarships,” connecting young women with a mental health provider and taking care of the payment. Funding comes from donations as well as foundation and federal grants.
The “Resources & More” section of the website includes references specific to African-Americans, as well as more general listings. Outreach efforts, meanwhile, focus on mental health literacy—including creating a self-care plan for dealing with distress.
Participants in Black Girls Smile workshops are encouraged to put together a list of people whom they feel comfortable reaching out to and are challenged to think about what helps them feel better.
“If you like to dance, we put that in your self-care plan,” Carson explains.
It’s all about making sure the next generation has the kind of tools she could have used when she was younger. And that’s what makes Lauren Carson smile.
Lauren Carson: What Works for Me
Writing it away. “When I feel like I am getting into a depressive mood, I need to journal some more,” she says. “I am an idea person and this helps me explore ideas.”
Getting out. “I need to be proactive about getting myself out of a funk, and that can mean forcing myself to leave the house.”
Connecting: “One of the main reasons that I moved back to Atlanta was to be closer to my family and friends. I am open about my illness and the times I am experiencing a depressive episode so my family, friends and individuals in my network feel comfortable asking me about my moods.”
Printed as “A Warrior for Well-Being”, Spring 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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