Taking a closer look at race and mental health for Black History Month

This post is authored by Jessica Chinnadurai. Jessica is a recently-licensed attorney who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2018. Her hope is to increase transparency around mental health issues in the legal profession, and to spread light to those fighting battles no one can see. You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

Every year, we celebrate Black History Month in February, to honor and recognize the central role of Blacks in U.S. history. For this post, I interviewed a Black attorney, “J,” for her thoughts on issues at the intersection of race and mental health.

J works for the federal government in Washington, D.C. She attended Howard University, a historically Black college in the city, for law school, where she graduated a little over ten years ago.

When asked if work-life balance or other well-being perks helped steer J in the direction of a legal career with the federal government, she grinned and told me, “Not directly . . . but I can say I’m glad I work in the government.” Those strongpoints have also kept her in the public sector.

I can agree with J. Flexible hours and “leaving work at work,” as she put it, are huge advantages to having a job with the federal government. Although J and I work for the federal government in different positions, our offices generally promote taking time off to relax and spend with family or friends.

In the first few months of my employment, my training class had the opportunity to hear from seasoned employees and get advice for thriving in the job. We were told employees run the risk of burnout in this position, due to its heavy focus on production. We have to meet an hourly quota and that number can weigh heavy on many peoples’ minds. Numerous individuals encouraged us to use our two 20-minute breaks during the day to take a walk outside or around the building. Others even spoke to us about the importance of maintaining social connections and hobbies outside of work.

J’s mental health tips for other Black attorneys sounds similar. She told me that it’s important for attorneys to “surround yourself with a good group of friends and family.” She mentioned how you can “choose people that you allow in your inner circle outside of work who can build you up.” She even suggests those people include other legal professionals who can relate to the nature and stress of your work. Although J herself isn’t involved in any legal associations in the city, there are numerous ones that Black attorneys can join in order to meet like-minded individuals, including GWAC (Greater Washington Area Chapter, National Bar Association) and BESLA (Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association).

Another external resource J turns to for mental health support is podcasts. One she brought up specifically, “Therapy for Black Girls,” has an associated website with an online directory for therapists of color. [1] You can search for therapists in a specific geographic location and find virtual therapists to connect with online. When asked the deeper question of how race ties into access to mental health care, J said, “Black people don’t feel comfortable talking to people who don’t look like them.” “That’s why,” she continued, “it’s crucial for Black people to seek out other people of color to talk to.” This factor alone is a huge barrier for Black people seeking help; there’s an understandable hesitation to seeking guidance from people who, historically, have played a role in creating some of their stress and trauma.

J expressed a powerful sentiment that likely resounds with many in the Black community: “You’re just a slave trying to work and survive.” Looking back through generations, much of the trauma that stems from slavery and racism has remained unresolved. Over time, as studies have shown, that trauma can be passed down genetically to future generations.[2]

When I asked J if she could recall a time when she personally experienced racism, a specific instance during law school came to mind. It was the summer after her 1L year and she was interning at a law firm. As a Black woman with natural hair, she decided to wear it in cornrows and thought nothing of this routine decision. That was until another Black female at the office, who was in a full-time Associate position, came into her office and told her not to wear her hair like that. She reiterated that it wasn’t “professional.” After that, J questioned the source of those instructions – did someone previously advise that Associate on the same matter and she, in turn, was just passing down the advice? Or did someone in human resources have another Black female tell J what they couldn’t directly?

Unfortunately, the latter scenario is very likely. In fact, the day before I sat down to interview J just a couple of weeks ago, Maryland joined a handful of other states in passing legislation to ban discrimination based on ethnic hairstyles in the workplace. A news article from USA Today[3] reported on February 6: “The Montgomery County Council unanimously voted to pass the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act which prohibits employment, housing, and other public service discrimination based on certain protective hairstyles and textures, like braids, locks, afros, curls, and twists.”[4]

J recalled feeling self-conscious after that conversation with her colleague and told me that those feelings sometime still linger. She expressed that Black women have a lot of those thoughts coming at them every day – “not feeling good enough, not feeling equivalent, not being seen.” Her personal mental health strategies focus on combatting those negative thoughts and detaching from sources, like social media, that may create or spread those false messages. She makes a “conscious choice to actively push back against those thoughts and challenge them.” She also finds it important to challenge the mentality that “doing nothing or relaxing is not a good use of time.”[5]

Those sorts of changes and shifts in thinking are what J thinks will help reduce the stigma around mental health in the legal profession moving forward. “Younger Black people are more comfortable exploring the idea that mental health is not a bad thing. Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re crazy or trying to ‘fix’ something.” She added, “It’s our responsibility to continue the trend of moving in a direction of openness and inclusivity, to make sure other people realize that seeking help is not a bad thing.”

[1] https://therapyforBlackgirls.com/

[2] I highly recommend a book on this topic called “It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” by Mark Wolynn.

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2020/02/06/montgomery-county-bans-hair-discrimination-maryland/4683361002/

[4] A former classmate from Mizzou Law wrote an article on this subject titled “Are My Cornrows Unprofessional?: Title VII’s Narrow Application of Grooming Policies, and its Effect on Black Women’s Natural Hair in the Workplace.” A link to her full scholarship can be found here: https://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/betr/vol1/iss2/9/

[5] A great article I like to share with other lawyers on this topic is “The Case for Doing Nothing”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/smarter-living/the-case-for-doing-nothing.html.

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