What It’s Like To Be Me: Naomi Ward on Self-love and Self-becoming as a Minority with Mental Illness

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What It’s Like To Be Me: Naomi Ward on Self-love and Self-becoming as a Minority with Mental Illness

Naomi Ward

Naomi Ward

Naomi Ward

Naomi Ward

Christine Mbagwu, Staff Writer

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“Is there something wrong with me?”

The intrusive thought was a double-edged sword that relentlessly dealt fate’s blows across a young woman’s languidly resting limbs. The message she gathered was that she was a defective person and it was scary. With the ever growing presence of mental illness in minority communities, mental health is at the forefront of Ward’s experiences. She has long since had the urge to dominate her mental health. To make it hers, all the while finding a peaceful balance.

Born and raised in the city of Laurel, Naomi Ward is a sixteen year old, black youth who in the midst of a thoughtful moment said she has “always lived there,” in Maryland. Like most teens her age, she cares about her body, she loves makeup, she enjoys doing hair, and she woke up early everyday to exercise. She is a junior attending Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD.

Ward continued about how she wants to be treated in a firm and unwavering manner regarding her mental health, as well as her sexuality and identity, which are at the core of her being. Off-screen, from the life people around her commonly know of, Ward has a conglomerate of mental illnesses that melds into her school and more public life. At age 14, she was diagnosed with bipolar depression and around age 15 was diagnosed with a binge eating disorder and body dysmorphia. She believes her diagnosis allowed her to take control, become more decisive, and put a lot of her actions into perspective, which in turn helped explain some of her sporadic emotions.

Growing up, she came from a religious, Christian family that ostracized her for her sexuality and enabled mental illness stigma. She continued that “the church frowns upon suicide because they think that it’s a selfish act when in all honesty, many people commit suicide because they think that others would be better off without them.” Ward recounted the many times she was told to read the bible or “pray on it” when she told her mother she was depressed.

This negative train of thought is like a tumor that grows and grows. “In many communities, especially the black community, mental illness isn’t seen as a real disease. Black parents often say that ‘black people don’t get depressed’ or that ‘mental illness is a white thing’ and this causes many black kids to not have anywhere to talk about their mental health,” she emphasizes. Ward understands this to be the reason why many poor schools have counselors that don’t have the proper training to supply students with resources they can use to help their mental illness. The stigma of mental illness renders it difficult for minorities like herself to receive the help and support that they need.

Pamela Roberts, a counselor at Eleanor Roosevelt, who understands mental illness to be a term addressing a multitude of mental health concerns, shared that it in itself is “often a difficult subject to discuss, especially in the black community.” Over the last 10 years, she believes health agencies are doing a better job at educating everyone on the different facets of the subject matter. In another light, Demi Adewunmi, born in Nigeria and raised in Maryland is a senior attending a nearby high school who sees mental illness as both a strength and loss to her. “It stops me from going to school, from showering, from eating, from living my life. When I’m good, it’s as if it’s never there. When I’m bad, it’s the worst I can ever be. The strength I have,” she said “is from not succumbing to my deepest urges of suicide.”

Despite Ward’s volatile environment, Ward learned to separate the people around her into two categories—her biggest supporters and those that inhibited her progress, squirreling away her motivation in the process. Her best friends are her biggest supporters who love and accept her for who she is, she fondly related.

Transparently, she reminisced: “My best friends, Jourdan and Sara help me keep myself grounded. They have been there for me through all my breakdowns and freak outs and I can’t thank them enough for it. Sometimes I think about killing myself but then I think about how it would make them feel and that is usually enough to keep me pushing.”

Sara Braddock pictured left, Jourdan Page middle, Naomi Ward right

Unfortunately, unlike her friends, her family does not support her being a part of the LGBTQ+ community and often drive her up the wall with their stigmatized views of mental illness. On the first note, she opened up about how it often hurts her to know her family alienates her. On a second note, Ward depicted how mental illness stigma is intersectional with themes of the LGBTQ+ community.

While Roberts isn’t personally familiar with mental illness stigma in relation to sexuality, she shared “I am aware of the stigma and natural mental health concerns that take place when someone is “different” from others. Often times in the Christian religion, individuals who are gay or transgender are rejected and shunned away. I also believe that women are more likely to get treatment for mental health concerns than men.” NAMI reports that LGBTQ+ youth are “2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than [heterosexual] youth” while “more women than men attempt suicide.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “more women with [any mental illness] (48.8%) received mental health treatment than men with [any mental illness] (33.9%).”

Demi Adewunmi has seen better days with more supportive parents. She shared that as a Nigerian, her parents’ initial insight on mental health has always been “that it is evil and fake, that prayer is all I need, that I have a roof over my head, a family, and food [which] is enough.” She followed up that her parents have since renounced their ways and began to understand and help her. Adewunmi felt constantly being misunderstood was painful.

Ward on another hand is reminded to be herself constantly and unapologetically as a result of her family’s purposeful estrangement.

It was not always that way, though. Her grasp on reality and how she wanted to live was not always so firm. “Mental illness is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It turns every insecurity you have into ammunition against you. And you can try to numb yourself for a while but it will forever be at the back of your mind, ” Ward stated. It has been a year and eight months since Naomi Ward stood before the foreboding angel of dark and light, or in other terms, death. In what seems like one breath, Ward opened up about a near fatal experience.

“The lowest part of my life was in May of 2017 when I attempted suicide,” she said. “I was a freshman in high school and the transition into high school was very difficult for me. Despite having many friends, I still felt very alone even when I was around other people. It eventually got to the point where I was just tired of living but was too scared to take my own life. However, one night I was sitting on the couch listening to Seigfried by Frank Ocean when I just started bawling. I started walking to the medicine cabinet and taking out all the drugs I could find. I remember it felt like I wasn’t even in control of my own body. That night I consumed over 60 Advil pills, 10 sleeping pills, and a mix of other drugs that I didn’t even know. When I was in the hospital that night I almost died but for some reason I lived. The next day I was admitted into a mental hospital. I did everything in my power to make it look like I was fine so they would let me leave the hospital.”

In the aftermath, Ward was prescribed Remeron for her bipolar depression but admitted that she stopped taking it. “It didn’t allow me to feel any real emotions, all I felt was cloudy and numb. I went to therapy for almost a year but, I wasn’t willing to talk about the reason I attempted suicide so it was pointless,” she sustained.

Ward elaborately described the blows of mental illness that beat upon her body on a daily basis. “Along with bipolar depression I struggle with binge eating disorder and body dysmorphia,” she told me. “Each is very different but they are all inescapable which makes it particularly hard to cope with. Bipolar depression is very scary because you are constantly experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Sometimes, I could be laughing and all of the sudden I just break down crying and I don’t even know why. And it makes it even worse because you feel like there must be something wrong with you in order for you to behave that way.”

Ward’s self-image of herself is a type of self-stigma that eats her away from the inside. It tells her she is unstable and confronts her when she attempts to relax. “It’s really scary to think about too because I was constantly living in fear of what I might do to myself,” she continued. “I woke up every morning not knowing if I would make an impulsive decision that day that would end my life. Body dysmorphia is probably the hardest of the three though. I haven’t looked at my body in the mirror in months because I know that if I do I will breakdown crying. I constantly feel self-conscious about how my body looks and I even have a fear of people standing behind me because I feel like they’ll realize how oddly shaped I am.”

The life that played on screen for Ward unraveled a little more and more. It allowed others to see the reason why she woke up early in the morning to dedicate herself to body care. Earlier, Ward recalled that her day always consisted of waking up around “4:30 AM to go to the gym and work out for an hour.” She illustrated that then she’d come back [home] and get ready for school. “I get to school around 8:30 AM and I get home from school around 4:15 PM. Then I eat a snack and do any homework that I was assigned,” she corroborated. The narrative divulges the typical, normal day of any young, growing teen. However, Ward shared the dark-sided truth of hers.

Naomi Ward pictured center

“Binge eating disorder also ties in with body dysmorphia. It’s very hard to deal with because you can’t just not eat. In this world we are constantly surrounded by food and every time you eat you have to fight as hard as you can to keep yourself from eating an extra 4,000 calories in just under an hour. And if you do give in to that temptation that’s when the guilt, shame, and self-harm comes in. I’ve found myself burning myself on many different occasions because I ate too much and I felt like I needed to punish myself. Then, all I wanted to do was cry and comfort myself with food. It’s a never-ending vicious cycle.”

She holds it to be true that her eating disorder formulates a deafening concept of what her body looks like. Ultimately she shared, “It’s very scary because the illness is completely inside your own head. You feel like you have the worst body in the world when everyone else sees you as normal. It even messes with your head because you can’t tell if you’re perceiving yourself wrong or if everyone else is lying to make you feel better.”

On the flip side, Ward went on to illuminate her happiest moments. “My highest point in life was my sophomore year of high school. I had fifth lunch with one of my best friends, Sara, and I met new people like Rodney and Spencer. Every time I was upset or feeling down Rodney and Sara did everything in their power to try and make me feel better. They would let me rant, cry, sit in silence, just whatever I needed. I didn’t know it then but, I was actually healing and for them I am forever grateful because I don’t know where I would be today without them,” Ward recalled. She feels that sometimes her manic and depressive behavior are more manageable but what makes them bearable, she supposes, is that they balance each other out.

At the same time, she portrayed the epidemic state of mental illness as we see it today going far as to explain that mental illnesses such as the more common depression and anxiety are being seen as socially acceptable and in some cases almost trendy. “Many people label themselves as depressed or having anxiety because so many people have it nowadays but they’d never label themselves as schizophrenic because they wouldn’t want to be seen as crazy,” she explained. Ward is displeased to know that mental illness is exploited or conversationally joked about by the very people that stigmatize mental illness. She exasperatedly stated, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say ‘Oh she’s crazy. She’s bipolar,’ or ‘Oh my god, I’m going to kill myself!’” Dami Adewunmi, twin sister to Demi Adewunmi, supported that often she hears phrases such as “girls are so bipolar” and “everyone is a little crazy.”

Counselor Roberts supported Ward’s experience—similar to others struggling with mental illness—explaining that “the common word used to associate mental illness is: ‘crazy’.” That term is used loosely with educated and uneducated individuals, she said. She continued, “within my own family there have been people exemplifying behaviors that line up with various mental health diagnoses [and] like many families of color, it is usually ignored or “prayed [for].” According to Roberts, changing times bring various social factors that can contribute to how people view themselves and a heightened number of people will experience troubles. Consequently, the terms “‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are used so loosely, that [mentally ill individuals] are becoming easy scapegoats,” the counselor supported.

Ward feels changes have since taken place within the last two years. “I’m very grateful that many people are becoming more knowledgeable about depression and anxiety,” she shared. She thinks also that everyone should know so many other mental illnesses exist that are disparagingly less discussed. Her bipolar depression is a prime example and it’s very rare that someone speaking to her about it actually knows more than just the moody behavior that is typically associated with it.

It’s imperative that people who struggle with mental illness celebrate their growth and have the opportunity to love and be loved. Ward passionately favors some credit to those who love her unconditionally. “It is important to me that others know that mentally ill people should be treated with love because that is one of the only reasons I have kept myself alive. When I was in my worst period of depression I felt that I would never experience love and that I would die unhappy. If people with mental illnesses didn’t deserve love then I would have no reason to be alive,” she announced passionately.

In the fight against mental illness stigma, Roberts advised others to provide the message positively. “Before students went home on the holiday break, the school counselors passed out positive messages to the students as they entered the school building. The messages relayed information about how important they are to people around them, letting them know it’s OK to have challenging days, etc.” she noted. Roberts further emphasized the role of cultural awareness in destigmatizing mental illness within minority communities. The message should spread by way of mental health forums, conferences, and education through primary care physicians and mental health providers in collaboration with schools and religious institutions, she said.

Dami Adewunmi shared that she also believes cultural awareness plays an important role in destigmatizing mental illness in minority communities. She fights stigma by trying “to teach [others] about mental illnesses and how it can harm you and more.” It’s important to keep and open mind to how pain affects others because even the happiest people could [be suffering the most], she advised. Dami Adewunmi believes “art [and] music…should [readily] be made available [to minorities] to turn trauma and hurt into something therapeutic.”

From left to right Naomi Ward, Sara Braddock, Jourdan Page, Olivia Kendall, and Bethany pose at 2018 homecoming

Ward’s story stretches to other students in nearby communities. Demi Adewunmi knows she has a place in this world as a non-binary and pansexual individual. She explained, “Hearing the things that my classmates have to say about people in my community, and about my nationality made me more depressed.” She demands fair treatment for minorities like herself with mental illness who also frequently encounter racism and homophobia. “All mental illnesses deserve a place in conversation not just the most known ones,” the senior added. In a light-hearted conversation, she detailed how she fights stigma. “I try to educate people about mental illnesses through Twitter,” she stated. “Social platforms consist of real people with real problems and concerns. I educate people on minorities, problems, sex, gender, mental illnesses, etc. along with providing my own personal anecdotes.” She passionately believes creating safe spaces, web forums, and nonprofit support groups will allow for “a safe and healthy way for people to cope [with stigmatization], and understand their identities with [other] people like themselves.”

Dami Adewunmi emphasizes the importance of safe spaces for people like herself, her twin, and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. She shared that it scares her to think about her parents finding out about her sexuality because they don’t support the LGBTQ+ community “and it causes [her] to feel even more depressed and anxious.” She wants to ensure “other mental illnesses not as common as [depression and anxiety]” are also talked about more, the senior added.

Ward sends the message that mentally ill people are loving just like everyone else. They don’t deserve the stigma of something they cannot fully control. In a lasting statement, Ward finalizes “I wish my family and peers knew not to take mental illness as a joke. If you haven’t experienced the pain of mental illness first hand you are not allowed to joke about it.”

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