Black girl lounging in bed. Photo via Flickr (Good_1)

Young, Female and Black Living with a Bipolar Diagnosis

In light of all the artists I really admire being so open on their mental health, I figured, I’d contribute to the much needed conversation on mental illness that’s been happening recently.

First of all, I don’t ascribe to the DSM 5, 4, etc, idea of what mental illness is. The DSM has a lot to say on what is wrong behavior but nothing to say on what is right behavior. Well, these are the definitions of mental health I ascribe to (Courtesy of Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka‘s presentation at Howard University):

Parham: being in touch with spiritual essence, having knowledge of self as cultural being, can access support, in order

Fu-Kiau: balance or harmony with oneself, one’s environment, and the universe


When most people think of Bipolar disorder, they think in a very undefined way, of crazy outbursts, or dramatic and sudden mood swings. But it’s a dismissive idea and many people can’t empathize with that image.

First of all, I’ve been “diagnosed” with Bipolar disorder, of the unspecified nature. I put diagnosed in quotations, because even when someone diagnoses you with something, doesn’t mean that’s what you are as a person. It also certainly doesn’t mean that’s what your actual neurological problem is. The diagnosis also doesn’t take into account how indigenous and African people, who’ve been around way longer than psychology or modern medicine, understand some aspects of what psychology and more importantly, the DSM, dubs mental illness.

Now I can only speak on myself! Because I don’t know what other people diagnosed with other types of Bipolar disorder along the spectrum go through.

In my opinion, the symptoms, warning signs, causes, complications of Bipolar disorder aren’t well researched and understood by doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The people who understand it the most are those diagnosed with the disorder but even then, it’s hard to convey it or make sense of it. I will give a brief generic synopsis of the components of Bipolar disorder, but keep in mind that to really understand the medical aspect of it, you have to research and study it. I’m much more concerned with conveying how it feels, than what it is.


In the Bipolar spectrum, there are Depressive states, you know, hopelessness, no motivation, unshakeable sadness, etc.  Then there’s Mania or Hypo-mania. Mania is an extremely elevated energy state that can escalate to being completely “out of touch with reality” and delusions/hallucinations. Hypo-Mania is often described as low level mania but even though it’s not as severe as full blown mania, it can be quite an impediment. There’s Mixed States, which has symptoms of depression and mania. There’s also Anxiety, which I think people erroneously define as worrying too much about the future. Nah, anxiety often happens because your inner environment is at odds with what’s expected of you in your outer environment. Imagine feeling sick and shitty, yet having serious exterior social responsibilities. You feel invisible, like you’re suffocating and dying & no one can see.

Now that was just a background, really really rough sketch of the “disorder.” I want to talk about what enables people to walk around and not be easily recognized as mentally ill. I want to talk about the details of mental illness that I think are often ignored.


People, even some people I’m close to, wouldn’t know that I could even be diagnosed on the Bipolar spectrum. My outward things are good: grades, GPA, work, social standing, etc. Most people with mental “illness” actually manage that. You learn early on how to manage and mask your problems.

But my inner life can be turmoil. It’s inside my head/heart that I suffer from sudden mood changes and also mood intervals (depressive, hypomanic, mixed state, “normal”, anxiety), intrusive thoughts, self harming impulses. It’s inside my head where I can be confused and disoriented. I’m usually the only one who witnesses my “breakdowns.” It’s inside my body that I feel the VERY real physical pain, that neurological disorders cause. Imagine feeling like you have the flu 24/7, 365 days, or 360 if you’re lucky.

I think it’s really important to hype the fact that mental illnesses have neurological bases. It’s also physical, it’s the same as being physically sick.


Why mental illness happens, no one can give a widely accepted reason. I personally believe the reason varies from person to person, and for each person, there can be a range of reasons. We don’t live in a bubble, so there are no uni-layered people or problems.

For some people, not understanding their spiritual abilities causes their body to react weirdly. For some people repressing their truth or not knowing how to manage stress causes problems. Living in a militarized state where your life is in constant danger causes problems. Being a descendant of enslaved and colonized people causes problems. Dr. Bobby Wright wrote about mentacide, which happens when you are alienated from your history and culture. It’s also common knowledge among psychologists that trauma cause emotional/mental lability. Lability refers to “something that is constantly undergoing change or something that is likely to undergo change.”

My description of what can happen to me daily, the confusion, disorientation, lack of motivation, desire to not be in this present time-space construction/socialization, physical pain; a lot of people can identify with that.

So it’s a very individual journey at it’s core, because pain can easily isolate us but it’s also something that only the person suffering can decide that they want to figure out. But we can help each other; we just can’t do it for each other. This is a call for us as individuals to embark on the journey toward mental health. And for us collectively, to help each other on that journey.

Empathize with others.

Recognize that our life is not hopeless: we’re not stuck with DNA, socialization, or an oppressive reality that binds us.

For Genes: there’s epigenomes, which change how our body is constructed, how our brain works in accordance to the environment we put ourselves in and the choices we make.

For socialization: there’s re-socialization, to whatever you truly want to be. The same way being around your parents or certain peers created you, you can re-write who you are with different choices.

For this oppressive reality: there’s a true and natural reality that we’re all striving toward. But we have to strive toward it, not just dream about it.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on BlackGirlBlue.Co. All rights are reserved to the author, Valerie Onifade. No portion of this article may be reproduced with express, written permission of Valerie Onifade.

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