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What It’s Like Having Parents Who Don’t Understand Mental Illness


I joke a lot with my friends that being an African child is a full time job in its self. But behind that joke is our reality, page one with few rewards and obsolete chances of promotion, health for in their eyes I will always be a child.

I am a female, rx I am a Christian, and I am an African.

I am a student, but I am also depressed, I have eating disorders, I have a learning disability all of which I had no hand in selecting , I didn’t ask for any of this, I cannot pick and choose how these things affect my life. The catch 22 here is the knowledge that I am so much more than the things that afflict me it’s just, I can’t pick and choose where and when they are going to affect how I see and move through the world.


The first time I ever opened up to my dad about how I saw myself, funnily enough, I was punished

I remember sitting in a lecture introducing the concept of intersectionality to my class, and the pin finally dropped. The concept that you are made up of more than one thing but they are all interdependent in creating your identity, I finally realised why thoughts of my familial environment drenched me with dread… why every discussion about the lack of control over how I felt left me drained and consumed with feelings of betrayal.

They are supposed to protect me… They are supposed to know me better than I know myself… so why can’t they see that this is real? Why can’t they see I’m trying?

my friends were banned from my house and I was banned from using weave and extensions

The first time I ever opened up to my dad about how I saw myself, funnily enough, I was punished. I was told I had too much that’s why I was not grateful, I had too much choice of food that’s why I was over weight (completely oblivious to what anorexia and binge eating disorder looks like), I had too many friends that I allow to “fill my head” with lies that’s why I hate my body and myself (when really these lies came from the mouths of my abusers who I had to see nearly every single day). I was told that the days I didn’t shower or the days I panicked at the thought of leaving my bed were because I was lazy rather than being crippled with anxiety. Because of all of that, my friends were banned from my house and I was banned from using weave and extensions… I had been sanctioned into a fast track course of gratitude and ‘self-love’ by my parents.

I had also been told I feel too much because I am a woman,  still have duties to perform in my house and if I am unable to do them then I am nothing but an “irresponsible child” and a possibly unfit mother and wife… an unfit contributor to a work force and a liability to my own growth…

What hurts is the fact that every single time I speak to my family about how my mind works as someone with anxiety and chronic depression I am told I am not prioritising, I’m told that I’m not trying, I’m told that I’m allowing my past to hold me back and not fighting for my future. When really I’m focusing my attention day in day out on silencing the voices in my head telling me that if I end it my life today, there will be no pain tomorrow.


I’ve made excuses for many years, saying that maybe my parents are in denial about the thought that their daughter wants to end her life when they’ve done all they can to make sure I have the best of the best. I told myself, frequently in fact, that I can’t expect them to understand. I can’t expect them to unlearn the talks of superstition and ‘juju’ that many Africans hold in their heads in regards to any misfortune let alone mental illness.

The work isn’t done but I am steps closer to feeling at home in my own home

But at some point you have to remember that your parents are grown adults; we didn’t sign up for being born, but they did choose to have us.  In my case my parents have had 6 trial runs at this parenting thing before I came to this earth, so I’ve grown tired of making excuses for them when they refuse to appreciate my lived experience as a black female suffering with several mental illnesses.

giphy (10)

As young people of minority ethnic groups born and/or bread in the west, we have no choice but to educate your parents in appreciating our daily lived experience. Because, although the countless sit down talks and tears that I have shed trying to get them to hear me have been extremely exhausting, they have changed the environment I reside in. The work isn’t done but I am steps closer to feeling at home in my own home, feeling safe and feeling supported- they may not hear the first or second time but at some point they will. As we grow and time progresses the support we need from our parents does to, we are not ungrateful or disrespectful for asking our parents to care about EVERY Aspect of us, not just the parts they can boast about to their friends.

How do they expect our grades and careers and finances to flourish if we can barely make it through the day without panic attacks or a burning frustration that we have lived to see another day? They want ‘the best for us’ but sometimes it seems like they don’t want us to be happy.

Living with mental illness’ of varying degrees to me has felt like I have been dying day in day out without the privilege of ceasing the ability to feel. We owe it to ourselves to live, we owe it to ourselves to feel like our voices and experiences are valued and there is no use in advocating for those rights in society when we don’t even feel valued in our own homes.


Written by Nunya Gemegah

You can find  more of my work at Thothsbyher.wordpress.com

Nunya Gemegah

Nunya is a food loving, duvet snuggling Social Anthropologist in the making. Having drawn her strengths from her lowest moments, she hopes to ask the questions we dance around concerning gender, race and mental health.

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  1. Madeleine March 1, 2017

    Thank you so much for this post! I feel I’m in the same position – a female uni student, diagnosed with GAD, depression, eating disorders and am African also. I try to not let them define me but my family refused to accept it for what it was and thought it was laziness and ungratefulness. It’s taking a long while for them to understand what I’m struggling with, at times I feel like I’ve had to almost prove what I’ve been struggling with. I agree with your last paragraph – for years I felt guilt almost for having these issues but I’ve come to realise none of it is through my choice, we deserve to feel like our voices are heard rather than carrying this ‘shame’! I’m so glad there’s someone like you who understands, unafraid to say what needs to be heard, thank you!

  2. Hawa March 5, 2017

    I’ve never read anything that I can relate to more than this. Thank you for writing it and letting me know that I am not alone.

  3. Jeremy October 14, 2017

    I think this is the experience of almost every body that suffers from this, parents don’t understand. It seems like there generation just doesn’t get it, and they blame you, for something they don’t understand. And exactly, there supposed to take care of you, if you had Cancer, they’d send you to the hospital for treatment, but not Mental Illnesses they’re just going to ignore that and blame you. Even if you go, a lot of “Doctors” and I put that quotes because a lot of them don’t deserve the title, will misdiagnose and misdiagnose again. It took 15 years of going to different doctors to get it right.


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