Editor’s note: The following article includes discussion about suicide. Some details may be triggering. Please proceed thoughtfully.
Diagnosed with clinical depression as a teen, Lauren Carson has spent much of her life navigating a society that stigmatizes the types of mental health obstacles she’s struggled with. Those stigmas are especially prevalent in the Black community, where dialogue surrounding mental health has historically been discouraged. In 2012, Carson founded Black Girls Smile, an organization aimed at helping young Black women receive the support and resources they need to lead mentally healthy lives. In partnership with Target, Carson shares her own mental health journey, and how Black Girls Smile is changing the narrative around mental health and helping women prioritize their mental well-being. This story was told to Leah Faye Cooper and was edited for length and clarity.
Growing up, we moved around a lot — all up and down the East Coast — for my dad’s career (he was an orthopedic surgeon). My parents did a great job at making sure my siblings and I made friends and were involved in activities whenever and wherever we lived. I look back on it now with gratitude, because it’s uncommon to experience so many different places, people, and cultures — and at such a young age, too. But I also think it negatively contributed to my mental health.
When we moved from Atlanta to New Orleans, I was just entering middle school, and it was a culture shock. Plenty of people travel to the city for Mardi Gras, but outside of the French Quarter, there was a huge racial disparity. As one of only a few Black kids at my school, I didn’t have an outlet to express what I was seeing and experiencing. Add to that the hormonal changes pre-teens endure, and I felt helpless and hopeless — my first symptoms of depression. I began to lash out at my parents, and my relationships with friends and family became tumultuous. But I was still doing well in school and playing basketball, which made it harder for the adults in my life to realize something was wrong.
Things got worse my freshman year of high school. I had always been happy, boisterous, and talkative, but there were periods during which I wouldn’t talk at all for several days — I just felt really sad and dejected. Conversely, when my parents would ask me to do something, my reactions were over-the-top and explosive. While that can be written off as typical adolescent behavior, it wasn’t typical for me. It came to a head when I was kicked out of the house for going out with friends when I wasn’t supposed to. When I refused to come home a few days later, my parents called the police and my dad presented me with an ultimatum: Go with the police (in other words, go to juvenile detention) or see a therapist. I’m not sure why my father threatened to send me to a detention center (we’ve never truly talked about that day — possibly because it was too painful), but I think he felt like there was a need for more drastic measures to resolve the situation. I ended up choosing therapy, and thankfully, my parents found an amazing Black female therapist who I was able to connect with right off the bat.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression, which is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness, and my therapist was able to help my family and I process my struggles. It was during these sessions that I learned about my family’s history of depression. A few years before, my mother had a depressive episode during which she wasn’t able to get out of bed or perform simple actions, like answering the phone. The word “depression” was thrown around then, but it carried a stigma. Like most Black families, mental health wasn’t something we had ever discussed. Depression was very much seen as a weakness, something to be ashamed of.
Once I was diagnosed and began to do some of my own research, I noticed similarities between what my mom had gone through and what I was experiencing, and it comforted me knowing that I wasn’t an anomaly. But I still felt isolated. This was in the early 2000s, and there was nothing on the internet about Black women and depression. I figured that my mom and I had to be only a handful of Black women experiencing it.
My treatment plan was talk therapy with a psychiatrist and sessions with my therapist once or twice a month. My coping and self-care skills were improving, but I still felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Eventually, I was prescribed medication, which helped alleviate some of those feelings, and my energy levels started to increase.
When I went to college, I didn’t have any form of mental health plan in place. I went from seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, and taking medication to nothing. I put my mental health on the backburner and during spring break of my freshman year, I attempted to take my life for the first time.
My mother insisted that I stay home and focus on my mental health, but my dad wanted me to go back to school. My best friend was supportive, but I had “friends” who made fun of me, believing that depression didn’t exist for Black people. I convinced myself that I just had a bad day and dove right back into school and basketball and my social life — and that’s typical for Black women. Things happen to us and we say, I don’t have time to deal with this. But a year later, I attempted to take my life again.
Both times I was placed in a psychiatric facility. After the second suicide attempt, I remember looking around and thinking, If this happened twice, I need to be here. But I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to keep putting myself and my family through this, and I knew that I was going to have to make a real change. I took a semester off from college and was in individual and group therapy. I was also seeing a psychiatrist, taking medication again, and incorporating more coping skills into my routine, like journaling. Once I made my mental health my top priority, I was able to be the person I wanted to be.
After college, I moved to New York and took a position at a financial software company. On the surface, people saw me as someone who came from a well-off family, a graduate from a top school, and a professional with a great job. I was doing really well, but I wasn’t forthcoming about my mental health because I worried about how I would be perceived. I was worried about the stigma, which I wanted to change. I wanted to help young women like myself. In 2012, to fill the void of mental health education for Black girls, I launched Black Girls Smile, an organization that provides support and resources to help meet the underserved and underrepresented mental health needs of young Black women.
Now, eight years later, we have Black Girls Smile programming in New York, Atlanta, and the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area. We focus on mental health therapy, identifying the signs of anxiety and depression, ways to communicate struggles to loved ones, and self-care methods. One of the things we work toward is cutting through the red tape to get Black women help. Recognizing that you or someone you love needs help is difficult enough, but it becomes infinitely more difficult when you don’t know if a provider takes your insurance, when you can’t afford therapy, or when you’re having trouble finding support that’s going to be racially and culturally sensitive. All of that can be discouraging, so we try to lessen those burdens.
The Black community has been hit the hardest since the pandemic, and we’re seeing the need for our organization and work more than ever. We’ve had to move a lot of our programming online, which changes the dynamic, but we’re hoping we can reach more girls this way. Personally, I’m in weekly therapy, and I’ve also been drawing on old self-care methods, which doesn’t mean massages and manicures; for me, it’s dancing, putting on my favorite movie, or picking up a basketball and shooting some hoops.
I still have bad days and depressive episodes, but I haven’t come close to the place I was once in. I’ve done the work to make my mental wellness a priority, and I’m committed to helping other Black women do the same.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.