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Conversations with Jenn: Real talk on Black Mental Health

Welcome to the first in a series that dives deep into the experience of black mental health for creatives. Lead by Auckland based actor and writer, Jennifer Onyeiwu, each month she will be digging deep into what it means to find your essential self as a black creative amidst a turbulent and changing world. Meet Jenn and take a deep breath! We got this - together!


I am an actor. Not ‘aspiring’. Not ‘wanting to be’. I am.

I wanted to act ever since I was seven, but to confidently declare that seemingly banal four-word statement took me a while.

For many of us, our youth is a time of change and growth but there’s also the potential for somewhere along the way (especially if you don’t have the right support) to lose our sense of self or at the very least, the sense of identity that was the essential ‘you’ and now has culminated into a series of phrases that teachers, parents, your Year 4 bully, tells you about you.

For me, that created an internal storm. The noise inside my head was loud and overbearing and furthermore, my ability to translate any of it into some semblance of meaningful expression was poor.

The louder the noise became, the more intense my disconnection from my body became. I began to carry this detached body around the world and experience things in a haze.

The dominant voices (we know who they are) in today’s society puts pressure on black women. Bodies. Minds. Spirits. The ‘strong black woman’ trope demands that a black woman must ‘power through’ her trials and tribulations all while being available to others around her and managing to keep her body, which is often battered and fetishized intact and pretty for continued objectification.

When she reaches a point of exhaustion or frustration and expresses it, she is then labelled ‘angry’. This volleying of trope prescriptions alienates black women from their human experiences.

I’m writing this because I too have been personally affected by the strong black woman trope, many times and in fact by people that I have held dear. I have had friends and family tell me that I am fearless and put me on this pedestal of achievement and strength and although well-meaning, there is (and was) a price to this strength.

As the pressures of my life mounted, I found my anxiety and depression climbing as I fought to stay ahead of my perfectionism.

UN Women Australia ran a campaign a few months ago titled #WhenWillSheBeRight and posted a poignant video about the complacency of this antipodean thinking.

I found myself asking a similar question about my mental wellbeing and when I would finally get it on track. This led me to take the brave and scary step to start my therapy journey at the beginning of 2020.

During my therapy experience, I realised that I spent a lot of time adopting the identities people put on me and not much time thinking about how I felt about things. I also discovered that I was quite afraid of using my voice to advocate for myself.

That alone was a sobering discovery.

Swedish musicologist Johan Sundberg once said, “The human voice has been called ‘the mirror to our soul.”

I felt my mirror was cracking.

There is something deeply debilitating about minimizing yourself. Discounting what you have to say as unimportant and not allowing yourself to be seen or heard. Tamara Beaubouef-Lafontant explained this eloquently sin her book Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman:

Voice is the expression of the “deep down inside” that Black women learn to create as they “pick up” strength. It reflects those points of view that locate Black women in their actual circumstances rather than in a timeless narration of struggle and caregiving. When Black women actively listen to “these outlandish thoughts and feelings” they view these voices as instructive rather than weak or shameful. They also privilege experience over expectations and refuse to allow strength to displace their humanity.

Once you start to speak up and speak out, you turn on your power. Any creative knows that the moment you let the vulnerability shine through and use your voice, you will connect not only to your soul but the souls of all the other people in the audience.

One of my acting teachers in New York repeatedly said that “To be observed, is to be disturbed.” I found that advice powerful and as a fellow creative, I encourage you to allow yourself to be observed and to let the disruption of those observations rumble your soul.

The more courageous you are in letting your voice be heard, the more powerful you become.

True Power. Genuine Empowerment.

That is the courage I am finding every time I act. I choose to step into the power that I have been afraid of for longer than I realised. It is a blessing. It is uncomfortable. It is my most authentic self.

Join me as I take the next step in sharing my reflections, my readings, my discoveries on black mental health as a black creative in Aotearoa. Deep breaths. Together.


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