Mental health advocate Dr. Jessica Clemons on what’s happening in our hearts, heads, and bodies in this cultural moment.
– KEYS SOULCARE
From appearances on Good Morning America to radio show The Breakfast Club to her own social media channels, Dr. Jessica Clemons, M.D. (a.k.a. Dr. Jess) is on a mission to make mental health and wellness a priority — and conversation topic — for all of us. So when one of our editors proposed a piece exploring the “ever-present, always-in-the-background rage” experienced as a Black person in a society where Black dignity is not respected, Dr. Jess was the first person we thought to call. Here, she speaks about righteous anger, self-care, and why there needs to be more Black and Brown mental health professionals.
What do you do?
I’m a general psychiatrist, a physician who cares for people experiencing mental health challenges. I use medication to treat, but also therapy. It’s my “day job” and a part of the public, mental advocacy work I do to normalize conversations about mental health.
Many today are feeling “righteous anger” as a response to bearing witness to the inhumanity with which this country treats Black and Brown people — and a lot of individual’s ambivalence about changing it.
It makes me think of the song “Mad” from Solange’s album A Seat at theTable. Just being cognizant of how there’s this anger a person is experiencing that really has nothing to do with how they are engaging in life, but more with how life is treating them.
How do you approach it in your own practice?
The conversation becomes about acknowledging and coping. This is what’s happening. And sometimes, you have to armor up from the inside. In part, I think the anger feels righteous because shockingly and disturbingly, you’re thinking, “Wow, I still have to live through this,” while constantly being under pressure to survive or validate who you are.
What is happening in our minds when this happens?
There are studies about brain activity in the amygdala, the center of the sympathetic central nervous system and our “fight or flight” response. It’s responsible for getting you out of trouble if you’re in harm’s way — from helping you move faster to seeing better in darkness.
If you’re experiencing persistent anxiety because of so much anger, you may literally be experiencing a “fight or flight” response because of anxiety due to racism based trauma — not just ‘mood changes.”
How does that feeling manifest in our bodies?
Like depression, with low mood, low energy, and apathy. But people can also experience less clearly connected symptoms including low concentration, appetite problems, constant worries, or neck or back tension.
Can you talk more about that inside-outside connection?
Psychodynamic theory believes that anger turned inward becomes depression. It makes sense. Anger eventually channels into something.
Some people may be more in their heads and deal with a lot of negative self-talk and blame when they are frustrated. Others may experience their symptoms physically within their bodies as flashes of heat or their heart beating quickly. Some may experience a combination of internal chatter and physical signs of anger.
Some people (myself included) believe that if you’re keeping things stored in your body, and if it manifests as mental health issues for some, why couldn’t it manifest as chronic conditions [like] lupus or cancer for others?
Can we talk about the parallel feelings that come up when so many of us — specifically Black and Brown people — hold that anxiety while still showing up to meetings, going to work, and just doing daily tasks?
That’s indicative of the trauma that Black and African-American groups are under, and also an example of emotional numbing that happens when you see unarmed Black people killed on video in a span of a few months. On the surface, you might not feel as phased the third time as you did the first — but you are, in fact, being retraumatized.
James Baldwin says, “To be Black and relatively conscious, is to be in a constant state of rage.” For many, being Black means to exist in a space of many emotions at once, especially conflicting ones. Imagine being excited about getting a promotion at work, but saddened by the promotion being for a Diversity and Inclusion role instead of the leadership position you had [imagined].
How can Black people and Black women best care for themselves?
Be open to seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. Be okay with taking breaks, prioritize tuning in to yourself, and ask for help. It shows strength to be able to do those things.
What is your highest vision for the work that you’re doing?
That people can confidently talk about their mental health and confront those who don’t support it. That mental health care becomes truly equitable, because it’s disappointing to watch people become encouraged, then not have safe places to receive care. And to see more Black people [like me] become therapists or psychiatrists, so our communities can do a better job caring for African Americans that are ready to seek treatment.
How are you showing up for the full spectrum of your feelings — even the uncharted ones — today?