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How Being Black is affecting your mental health: seasonal affective disorder.

Black Mums Guide To Wellness

Helping Black Mums to Love Themselves as Much as They Love Their Kids.

S1. Know Thyself and understand how Being Black is affecting your mental health and what you can do about it. This letter specifically focuses Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) aka Winter depression and vitamin D deficiency in black women. It touches on how mental health issues have gone undiagnosed and passed down through black families.

Dear Black Mums,

There’s a difference between you and the mums that have been surveyed, case studied, and supported by our UK healthcare industry. You may have noticed this already when you’ve been asked, if there is swelling and redness. And you’re like, ‘yes and no’. There is the swelling, but the redness though? I’m black - no redness here.

So the general healthcare advice and support, may or may not be affective for us as black mothers. You know, there are various ways in which black mums have an experience which has gone un-documented, un-researched and therefore unsupported. This general healthcare information also extends to the detriment of black women’s mental health too.

Around autumn and winter each year, I was well aware that I would feel down and life just seemed so much harder. For so many years I attributed it to hating my birthday which is in November and Christmas. I never celebrated either of these events with intention, because I really did not have the energy and assumed that pressure of those specific events caused me months worth of aggravation.

Thinking back now, there was always a lot of drama among my black friends and family. Fights and arguments which lasted a few months at a time. One aunty disrespected another aunty and every conversation and phone call would be a recollection of negative events, negative conversations and further spiralling into the depths of a collective depression. So we’d avoid each other and isolate from one another, we’d pull away from each other as if we were the real issue. The break down of black families is so closely link to mental health and it is not spoken about enough.

I was always aware of the nightmare that became life in the dark months. I was always so over life in the dark months. I was depressed and filled with anxiety year after year, autumn after autumn and I never once attributed it to a mental health issue.

And then just like magic, as the dark days made way for the sun to rise earlier, brighter, warmer, march would bring spring and things would feel better. Things would look brighter. We’d be more energised and ambitious, more inclined to spend time outside, more inclined to forgive each other and winter’s depression would become a distant memory, a thing of the past. Until the next time.

Never once did any member of my beautiful, struggling black family utter the words ‘mental health’. Did they even know that each of us had mental health? That we would needed to nurture and maintain it to keep ourselves mentally healthy? Did they know that Aunty wasn’t to blame for her lethargy and her disrespectfully ‘always lying down instead of helping out’? Had they ever even been informed, that the reduced levels of sunlight in the autumn and winter was having an impact on their brain’s ability to produce certain chemicals and hormones which would affect their mood and outlook on life? Had they known about their skin’s role in their mental health? Did any black family get the memo?

Living in the UK and experiencing this break down in family year after year, feeling low in energy year after year, going through the motions of life, struggling to enjoy any of it year after year, keeping it all inside year after year - all of that is attributed to the fact that we are black.

‘Where are you originally from?’ is a question I get asked a lot in the UK, because the depth and richness of my melanin speaks for itself. I am not from here originally. I am from the continent of Africa; Nigeria in the west and Rwanda in the east. I can proudly tell you that now because being African is finally something to be proud of and triggers way less racist bullying like it did all through my childhood years. Originally, my melanin, my blackness, would be under the warm rays of sunlight, all year round. Yummy, warm rays of sunlight, all year round would help me to maintain a healthy mental state, strong bones and to get better sleep. It would help all the members of my family, we’d be more upbeat and energised and less irritated by small things each other did or said. Sunlight. It is medicinal.

Why sunlight?

Vitamin D can be produced within our bodies through contact with natural sunlight, it can be consumed through supplements and foods fortified with extra vitamin D. Without sunlight and intentionally taking supplements or eating food fortified with vitamin D, there will be a deficiency of vitamin D.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may include:

  1. Fatigue

  2. Not sleeping well

  3. Bone pain or achiness

  4. Depression or feelings of sadness

  5. Hair loss

  6. Muscle weakness

  7. Loss of appetite

  8. Getting sick more easily

  9. Dull skin

My sweet family, I am sure, were never informed of any of this. I have only recently found this information myself and at first, I thought, ‘yeah, sounds generally helpful,’ I shrugged a little and continued on in life. It wasn’t until I learned that black people and more specifically black women, even more specifically richly melanated black women such as myself, were most likely to be deficient in vitamin D.

People with darker skin are much better protected from UV rays – but also need to spend longer time in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as people with lighter skin would. "The non-Hispanic Black population generally has higher rates of vitamin D deficiency," says Dr. Lacey. "The darker your skin, the less vitamin D you make from sunlight exposure."

So there we have it, an explanation of why the heck every single winter for as long as I can remember, has been one long nightmare. It’s been SAD.

So what can I do about it?

There are a few things we can do to help get through the darker winters:

Since, Seasonal Affective Disorder is largely affected by a vitamin D deficiency, this year, I am taking my vitamin D production seriously. I am taking supplements, heading out for a sunny walk whenever the sun does show up (and even when it doesn’t) and consuming foods and drinks with added vitamin D and booking myself in on a few sunny trips in warmer climates across Europe and North Africa. As a child, if I had seen my family members taking care of themselves in the winter months, even if I didn't know why, I would have adopted some of their habits and rituals. As a mum, it is important to allow your children to see you, and to join you when taking care of your mental health in this way. So another priority for me is speaking with my children about how I am feeling affected by the weather here and what I can do to empower myself.

I am also, being kind to myself when I really don’t have the energy, the motivation or the will to do things. Most importantly, I am explaining my situation and speaking my truth to everyone who may be affected by my change in mood and energy. These last two year I have found the winters a struggle, as per usual, but with the voice in my head (my mind) being more understanding and much kinder, I have gotten through the slog, understood and supported.

I say that speaking your truth is most important because, with kids in tow, you still need to get on with life. You will hear people say, “are you okay? You seem a bit down?” Or “oh, you still haven’t started? You are really behind now and it’s not a good look,” or “you’ve changed, what’s up?” Without sharing the truth of how you are feeling, you will absorb these questions and ask yourself them over and over, with no answer in sight, over and over, until you berate yourself into a deeper depression.

However, something that I have noticed in my own experience, if you speak up and say, “you know, the winters are hard on my mental health, as a black woman in the UK, there are many factors that contribute to that. I am doing my best and that is all I have to give.” You are much more likely to be met with compassion, understanding and even support. Continue on these conversations with those around you, continue to make small changes and to observe how they help you and continue (or now that you’ve read this begin) to be kinder to yourself when you’re lower or slower than usual.

Speak up, black women. Speak your truth, be soft and supported.

As always, I’m sending you so much love and light.

Chaneen x

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