When the Mask Comes Off

We need to address depression to save our lives

by George M. Johnson

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any of us walk this earth as wounded warriors. Battered by the blows of society’s devaluation of the black body while we fight against the lack of acceptance of our lives based on the color of our skin. Shackled by these systems of oppression, it is truly by the grace of the higher power that many of us are able to get up every morning with the odds stacked against us to face the world. Boldly, Bravely, and Unapologetically.

Each morning many of us follow the usual routines. Washing our hair, brushing our teeth, and picking out what we will wear to work that day. Checking for our phone, keys, and wallet or purse as we make a mad dash to head to work. Before exiting our homes, we all make sure that one more thing is not forgotten before we make our way out the house. We look in the mirror, take a deep breath and put on the mask.

The mask is used to cover our pain. It is the face we put on in the boardroom when we are the only black person in the meeting. The mask is what we put on we find out that we are HIV-positive and have to return back to work as if nothing ever happened. The mask is the beautiful smile that we put on in pictures and with our friends as we laugh louder to hide the internal crying going on inside. We often head home after events, hanging with friends or just a long day at work to unwind. It is during that alone time that we have to take a look in the mirror and see if we can continue to accept the mask that we wear or if it is all just too much.

Depression is a real thing and is very much prevalent in the black community. Classified as a part of mental health, depression is one of those things that people assume you can just “snap out of.” As if depression is simply linked to just having a bad day, week, or it just not being “your season” for the blessings. The problem with this logic is that we fail to acknowledge that depression is a mental health condition that many need some form of therapeutic intervention to combat or even medication to help a person get through their day to day. Furthermore depression has a direct correlation with another issue within our community: suicide.

Selfish (of a person, action, or motive): lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

Suicide may be many things and have many different descriptions but I want to emphatically say that one thing that it is not is selfish! Far too often, I hear suicide directly coincide with this word and I feel that there needs to be some understanding around it. People take the “lacking of consideration for others” piece of the definition and run with it. Suicide is not about others. It many times has nothing to do with anyone else. It is not a decision made with the worry about how others will feel after you are gone. Many times suicide occurs out of a feeling that people would be better off in a world that did not include them.

The mask and suicide go hand in hand. We are often left trying to wrap our head around what went wrong. Thoughts and memories of the good times we shared with a person. Hundreds of pictures with smiles from ear to ear never once giving the inkling that something else was going on. Unfortunately, the pictures and memories were all with the face of the mask being worn. It is almost like taking a picture with a person wearing a happy-face costume all day while secretly crying and in pain underneath. Showing the world one thing while in the “alone” moments being something totally different.

I don’t think I was ever truly close to committing suicide, but I can honestly say I understand how at times things can seem so bad that suicide becomes an option. The problem with suicide is that it is a permanent decision for a momentary event. It is a decision that if thought about for an hour longer or even a minute longer could have a totally different result. I recently lost a friend and this is the first time I am choosing to talk publicly about it. I think many of us went through the “what could we have done?” and “what did we miss?” phase of grief. I am finally in a place of understanding that it was the mask that we missed. Partially because we didn’t see it, partially because we each may have been wearing our own mask.

If nothing else, I want this piece to bring healing and understanding of suicide, depression, and the dangers of putting on the mask. At some point the mask has to come off and we must be willing to live with whatever lies underneath it. My best advice is to start addressing the problems the mask covers up and to ask for help if you need it. RIP, friend. We will continue to carry the torch and fight for what you stood for. No Excuses.


George M. Johnson is an HIV advocate who works for Us Helping Us, People into Living located in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pride.com, Musedmagonline.com, Blavity.com, Rolereboot.org, and Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @IamGMJohnson.