A View of Anxiety from a #SAPro of Color

by Sylvester Gaskin

I know I’m in trouble when the palms of my hands sweat.

I was at NASPA 2014 in Baltimore, and I was struggling. All I wanted was a quiet space to check some e-mail and catch my breath. It was already an uncomfortable place to be in. I was surrounded by so many people, so much noise, and not a lot of diversity. I really didn’t know anyone, as it was my first NASPA experience, and the people I met at a Knowledge Community meeting were engaging with their own friends and colleagues. I walked through the convention center and truly felt invisible amongst the throngs of talkative professionals catching up and gossiping. Once my phone was slipping out of my hands, I really knew something was wrong. All of these factors led to one of many anxiety attacks during the conference. It was bad enough that I was alone, but I felt like I was out of place and ready to run away from what was supposed to be a positive and enlightening experience.

As a man of color in student affairs, the expectation is that we are supposed to exude confidence and intelligence at all times. We are the best and brightest of the race, the talented tenth W.E.B. DuBois wrote about, the strongest who survived insurmountable odds. In some ways, that’s awesome as I want to be seen as the best of what my community has to offer. I want to be seen as someone who can be a resource and as an ally. We’re supposed to be strong, but not too strong, lest we may be seen as the “angry professional of color.” You have to balance between being a friend and a foe, fitting in and standing out. We’re highly valued, up to a certain point. And that strength has to mask any fears.

It makes matters worse that I have a severe anxiety disorder that has been exacerbated by vicarious trauma. In communities of color, mental health issues are seen as a severe weakness; don’t talk about your feelings and just suck it up because your family suffered through worse. The stigma about having a mental illness is taken to a higher level in our communities because of a long history of misdiagnosis, maltreatment by doctors and government, and a lack of suitable resources to access. I’ve been part-blessed and part-privileged that I had access to caring and thoughtful therapists that understood these historical legacies and had the cultural competence to work with me. At the same time, I have not had the same reception from many of my colleagues and a good number of my past supervisors with whom I have shared my diagnosis. The comments I heard, from “just tough it out,” and “all you need to do is let it go and move forward” were similar to what my family members would tell me when I would be struggling, and those words don’t help at all. The support I’ve gotten from colleagues with my mental illness came from those who have similar struggles and understand the unique challenges it poses. While there is comfort in shared experiences, it is discomforting to see professionals ignore the uniqueness mental illness has in communities of color and its impacts within student affairs. That chilly reception from professionals, particularly within a field that prides itself on openness and inclusion, only furthers that stigma.

There are countless times where my anxiety has impacted my journey in student affairs. Going to large conferences are a major challenge; as I discovered at NASPA, there are very few opportunities to find quiet spaces to reflect and get away from the crowds. There are lots of people that I don’t know, and being a natural introvert, going to meet new people is already uncomfortable. Plus, whenever I meet other professionals, I have to navigate the inherent identity politics that are present. As a professional of color, I have to deal with what the profession thinks of me, and I also have to deal with what other professionals of color think as well. Since it’s such as small cohort of peers, what people say and think about you spreads widely. Anxiety makes all this even worse to deal with; in fact, it makes dealing with the politics within the field unbearable, and forces me to retreat even more into my introversion.

The most important thing I can tell you is that this journey is mine alone to walk. Once we as a profession dedicate ourselves to seeing mental health as a necessity to deal with and not just a talking point, then I can begin to feel that I will have some others along with me. In addition, the discussion about mental health issues within communities of color is near invisible in student affairs. I challenge my colleagues, and you as the reader, to examine why mental health issues for people of color are not present in #SACommits conversations. For a field that talks about its “bravery,” this is a time to examine why we are so uncomfortable speaking deeply about mental illness, internalize our own mess and figure out best ways to provide culturally relevant support to our colleagues who have unique journeys with mental illness.

Originally posted at the Student Affairs Collective on May 6, 2015.