Finding fearless: Black women fight for better mental health care, find support in one another

Brailey Sheridan

News editor

bsherida@unca.edu

The hot summer sun beats down on the pavement of a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. Like most days, kids exit their homes and file into the streets to play games of catch and house, while London Newton and her little brother prepare for a round of their favorite competition. They slip into their bike helmets, leaving the fear of scraped knees and broken noses far behind, and take turns riding their bikes as fast as they can before jumping off, watching to see who can send their bike the furthest down the road. 

Days in Columbus moved quickly for her. Being less than 10 years old, her street still seemed like the whole world and she got to be the center of it. As a self-proclaimed tomboy, she never shied away from a challenge or bet, that is if she could drag along Elijah Newton, who held the title of younger brother/best friend. 

 “I don’t know how I lived this long,” she chuckled. 

When London wasn’t with her group of friends, which was pretty diverse for her predominantly white area, the pair found good company in each other. A seemingly born leader, London could hatch a plan in seconds and found a good listener and willing participant in Elijah, only two years younger than her. These plans led them up trees chasing birds and down the stairs in Rubbermaid tubs from the third-floor balcony to the second, “sledding” as she called it. 

It was these antics that earned her the title of “fearless,” a facade she said she’s tried to hold on to for her whole life. 

Being a Black woman, the 20-year-old said she feels societal pressure to be strong and not ask for help. Instead, Black women learn through their gender socialization in the master/slave dynamic to bolster the needs of others, caring for them before themselves. Today, this manifests itself in Black women’s overwhelming presence in social justice work, despite being the most marginalized and forgotten group in the U.S., she said. Few avenues to mental health care reinforce Black women’s inability to ask for help, isolating them more as they seek liberation. 

 

Growing up and coming out

To most of the world, London and her family had it all, neatly trimmed grass to play in during the summer, a good school for the fall and church on Sundays, but behind closed doors, it was crumbling. Her parents divorced when she was 7 or 8 years old and she moved to Huntersville with her mom, older sister and brother two years later. 

“You know, 2008, when everybody’s parents got divorced,” she said with a twinge of sarcasm. 

The group moved in with London’s aunt while they transitioned to life in North Carolina, which offered new beginnings for her mom, more choices in college for Lauren Newton, London’s older sister, and new places to get into trouble for London. 

“My mom basically worked her ass off the entire time we were there, literally two or three jobs at a time while being in school and having three children,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it sometimes because I remember we didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t realize we were like broke, broke. Then when I did start to realize we were broke, broke, I was like, ‘Mom, how have you managed to feed us this whole time and all that kind of stuff?’ I do not know how she did it.” 

Shannel Newton, London’s mom, recalled being raised by a single mother as well, noting how her mom instilled in her the importance of, first and foremost, taking care of your children. Despite being overworked and tired, Shannel still took her kids to church each Sunday and spent time in their elementary classrooms, even going in and observing teachers from time to time when London complained about their behavior. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a mom and I love my children. I’m going to give them the best, regardless. And so, you know, I’m going to continue to make sure my kids get their education, that they’ve graduated from college, that they have the best that they need,” Shannel said. “But, also, I’m going to teach community service. You’re trying to raise them, so you still want them to have a heart to serve. It is a lot to balance when you’re doing it on your own.” 

The Christian church heavily influenced the Newtons’ heart to serve. London and her mom spent most Sundays at church, bouncing between services and childcare duty. London said while she is no longer active in church, having that experience taught her from a young age to be selfless and to help others. 

Their move to North Carolina brought a new school and a new group of friends. For the first time, London was around many Black students, most of whom called her white on the inside. This troubled London, who was already having many conflicts with her fifth grade teacher.

“When Osama Bin Laden was murdered, I was in school. We walked into the classroom and she was giving out cupcakes and we were watching the news on one of those TVs that’s on a little rolly thing and it has a strap. She was having us watch the news and have a celebration party because Osama Bin Laden was killed,” London, said. 

Calling her emotionally manipulative, London’s fifth grade teacher didn’t do much teaching in her opinion. Rather, she singled out students to pick on and gaslight. This dynamic made Shannel furious and London disinterested, shifting her attention from the learning to the social sphere. 

“She’s always been social. I told London, I think she was like six or seven, ‘London, you can have a party and you can have 10 people,’ London had 25 people come,” Shannel laughed.

 As London put fifth grade behind her, middle school brought new challenges. Aside from the normal stressors of middle school life, London dealt with racist teachers and administrators, disordered eating and insecurities about her growing body, her own internalized racism surrounding her natural hair and the forming realization of her sexuality, all while being actively involved in a church she feared would shame her if she came out. Unable to ask for help, London spent most of her time struggling in silence. 

“I was very much internalizing that. I’m very good at putting things in a box and forgetting them so I remember in second or third grade this one girl that looking back I’m like ‘You had a crush on her.’ She said ‘My uncle’s gay’ or something. Then I said, ‘What is gay?’ and she said, ‘It’s when guys like guys or girls like girls.’ I said ‘OK, putting that down in a box and shutting it again,’” London said. 

 

This shame coupled with her growing dislike of her body. London said her body developed more quickly than her friends and peers making her more susceptible to getting dress coded or body-shamed by teachers at her school. In an attempt to fit in with her white friends, Newton tried losing weight and began relaxing her hair. 

“There were multiple occasions where two, three or four of us were all wearing the same outfit and I’d be walking in with a bunch of skinny, white girls and I would be the only one who got dress coded,” London recalled. “Then I had peers who were like, ‘Stop trying to look sexy,’ and I was like, ‘I’m 13.’ I wasn’t trying to be sexy.” 

It wasn’t until high school that London began admiring her hair and body. She began wearing her hair naturally and committed to “The Chop” in the ninth grade, in which she cut all her relaxed hair off so her natural curl pattern could come through.

In late middle school, London began telling her friends she was attracted to women, but it wasn’t until high school that she came out to her mom who she feared would judge her because of her religious beliefs. In an attempt to ready her for the news, London offered a few scenarios to her mom to test the waters and watched The Fosters with her because it shows two lesbians raising a family. London believed if she humanized gay people her mom would be more accepting. 

“She would always say she has these friend questions. She’ll say ‘My friend is going through this,’ but it’s really her,” Shannel said. “When I looked back on it, she was trying to tell me to see how I would respond.” 

While coming out was a gradual process for London, the news broke to her mom during a breakdown in early high school. Through tears, London told her mom she feared she would disown her if she told her about her sexuality. 

As Shannel recalls this memory her voice breaks and guilt washes over her. Shannel said she feared London would face more discrimination being a Black and queer woman and wanted to protect her. That protection came at a price though as London felt isolated by her mom’s responses to her questions.

“It was something that we had to grow through because she thought I felt a certain way,” Shannel said. “It’s just like if you’re talking to somebody about racism and they don’t think that they’re racist. She would make little comments about people being homophobic and I never really thought of it like that.” 

It wasn’t until Shannel found out that LGBTQ+ youth experience rates of suicide three times higher than heterosexual youth, according to the Trevor Project, that she began working toward bettering her relationship with London. She looks back with regret that she didn’t recognize the harm she was committing until much later. 

“I always wanted to be there for my children to support them, but I felt like I didn’t know that I wasn’t there for her because I didn’t really know what she was experiencing. Even though we’ve overcome it, it’s so hard to imagine that she was struggling with that. I had no idea because I always want to be there or my children,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I wouldn’t want her to think that I would love her any less. It’s very hard to think about that. She struggled, and she probably felt alone, and I didn’t know that she was stressed.” 

 

Lost in leadership: coping through busyness 

As high school carried on, London found a coping mechanism in an unexpected place: Jr. Reserve Officers Training Corps.

“My mom, my friend, her mom and I were at an interest meeting, and they said ‘London and Kayla would never do ROTC. They hate uniforms and they don’t listen to authority’ and then we said ‘Bet.’ We became captains of things. I won multiple awards. I got a $500 scholarship for college. I went to multiple leadership events. I had multiple leadership positions,” London said. 

 JROTC offered a practical option for London as an extracurricular that required no personal funding. She traveled places and experienced things with JROTC that she never could’ve due to the financial burden it would have placed on her mother. Now a prison and military abolitionist, her relationship with JROTC remains a complicated one. 

“That was very accessible to everyone. One thing that sucks is, yes, the military-poverty-industrial-complex is terrible, but programs like ROTC are what keep some students out of trouble. They gave me free SAT tutoring. All of the parents who could not fill out a FAFSA, they help them fill out the FAFSA. We have higher attendance, higher GPAs, it sucks and it can help build my resume,” London said.

Recognizing her natural leadership qualities awakened London’s confidence. Not only was she social, but she also had a way of organizing and helping others that made her feel strong and needed. 

“I think as I’ve known her, I’ve just kind of watched her grow more and more confident in herself. I remember in high school, I would always look up to her because our personalities are pretty different. I was kind of always a little bit shy and afraid to speak my mind and I admired her a ton in high school because she was part of JROTC and we were a part of prom committee together, and she took a couple of AP classes, was in a few different clubs and she always kind of had her eye on the prize as far as applying to school,” said Sophie Sabourin, a friend of London’s since the seventh grade. 

JROTC also taught London to seek control in every situation, learning to rely on herself instead of asking for help or taking breaks when she needs too. Without the tools necessary to work through her traumas surrounding her body, race and sexuality, London coped through her extracurricular work and leadership. To everyone else, the fearless girl they’d known as a child was shaping into a strong independent Black woman, but the pressure was slowly building in London. 

“It was definitely a mix of like my mom and being in ROTC in high school and then having leadership positions in it, that kind of taught me to just be like, ‘You gotta keep moving, no time to cry’ and that kind of stuff. You have to get shit done regardless,” she said.

London’s leadership skills and natural charm continued to serve her when she arrived at UNC Asheville, working her way up from a freshman senator for the Student Government Association to UNCA’s student body president. 

Though her journey to student body president was swift, the process wasn’t easy. People often mistake London’s sense of humor and warm personality for passive silliness. These assumptions undermine the hard work and dedication she puts into being an effective leader and come from a place of misogyny, she said. 

“When I first got here, I felt that I could do any position I wanted to do. I felt very empowered to do a lot of things. Then, specifically, as president, because I didn’t really see people who had similar leadership styles with me, it made me feel like my leadership style wasn’t good enough,” London said. “I feel like part of that was because I’m feminine and I’ve only seen the two male presidents and they were very laissez Faire, very technical and not a lot of direction. Isaiah was also very direct and me being excited and smiley and loud and talkative, it made me feel like I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I had to kind of be convinced and reminded ‘You’re not an idiot.’” 

From the outside, London’s success in SGA, blossoming friendships and growing interest in political science could have easily convinced someone she was doing just fine, but, in actuality, she was struggling to find space as a Black woman at a predominantly white institution. UNCA’s open-minded and accepting appearance proved to be a lie and London frequently experienced microaggressions, even as a leader and friend to many students. 

“Part of the reason I came here was because I heard everyone was going to be gay. I forgot that just because you’re gay does not mean you are not racist. So I dealt with a lot of little microaggressions and just watching a bunch of white queers appropriating Black culture. It is really disrespectful,” she said. “My freshman year I had this roommate that was saying N-word and so I moved out and I was made to feel like I was being dramatic and that this was just an argument that we could get over, which I think is just people being assholes to Black women and Africans saying we’re being dramatic when someone’s being literally racist.” 

  These experiences manifest in many overt and covert ways, requiring a lot of emotional labor from London and other Black, Indigenous and students of color on campus. London now uses her platform as student body president to call attention to the ways she and other BISOC feel less than and unwelcomed at UNCA. 

 

Building community in the fight for liberation 

On a warm day in early June, London delivered a case of water to a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Asheville, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by Officer Derek Chauvin. While there, some medics asked if she’d tell protesters what to do if they got tear-gassed, a common occurrence at the Asheville protests in early summer. London snapped into action, despite this being the first protest she’d ever been to, and led protesters through the steps of washing their eyes and bodies. 

Later in the day, London met with other Black organizers in the area and began working with them on future protests. Together the group planned vigils, protests and celebrations, focusing not only on justice but also on Black joy and love. 

“On Juneteenth, I was dancing and that was just such a good day. It was one of the first days Michelle and I talked and I felt a glimpse of what Black liberation could look like. I love seeing that the people are happy and it was just so awesome seeing everyone dance,” London said. “Then it started pouring down rain and everyone kept dancing which really means we’re happy because Black people don’t like water.” 

London’s mom, who had previously kept her from going to protests for safety, didn’t object to London’s involvement in this summer’s protests. A sense of pride rang in her voice as she spoke about London’s leadership this summer, any fear shadowed by her respect. 

“Something that I really feel is that this is the call of her life. If I wanted somebody to fight for me or fight for the rights of people that do not have equal rights or may not be treated fairly, I would want London to be by my side. So as her mom, I really had to separate. I just couldn’t, I couldn’t worry about it. I couldn’t, you know, be anxious about it,” Shannel said. 

The group of organizers, which consists of mostly Black and queer women and non-men, focuses not only on liberation through police and prison abolition and investments in Black communities but also through healing their traumas together, London said. This emphasis on trauma and healing allowed London, who uses leadership as a distraction from trauma, to create a productive outlet for her anxiety until she can find a therapist. 

“It’s really traumatizing work and it’s really physically and emotionally exhausting and it’s dangerous, but it’s really, really, really healing to proclaim and speak into existence Black liberation,” London said. 

Due to limited access to mental health care and the stigmatization of mental illness, Black adults are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than adult whites, according to the Center for Disease Control. Black girls often face additional stressors due to the intersections of race and gender. This results in Black girls, grades 9-12, being 70 percent more likely to attempt suicide compared to non-Hispanic white girls of the same age, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 

“You don’t have the privilege to take care of your mental health when you don’t have money. My mom literally works for Novant Health and our insurance still does not cover a lot of therapists. There are a lot of therapists that don’t have that or don’t take Novant. And on top of that, there’s not a lot of Black female therapists. So it’s a lot for me to finally even admit like ‘OK, I need to go to therapy’ is one thing, but now I’m literally having trouble finding a Black female therapist,” London said. 

Until mental health care becomes more accessible, building community with other Black people remains imperative, London said. Together they work through their traumas in an attempt to heal and break down commonly held stigmas. 

“I think in the Black community we don’t tend to talk about a lot of things because of how traumatizing it is being Black,” she said. The fact is that a lot of us don’t have time to unpack our trauma. So while I’m glad I learned how to be so strong, it’s helped me get through a lot, it makes it where it’s hard for you to really talk about and work through your feelings.”

The organizers encourage those in attendance at protests to work on healing their personal traumas through meditation, art and service. A message of love for others and for oneself rings through in their activism, a message similar to what London’s mom taught her many years ago. 

“It’s been like so helpful for me and learning to love myself more and seeing my power more and trusting my voice and my intuition because there’s a lot of situations we’ve been put in where I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know what to do,” and we still got through it,” London said. 

Fighting for the future 

When asked about the future London just chuckled and stated there’s no real plan other than continuing to use her authentic voice to help others. 

“I think a lot of the things I dealt with being a Black woman was feeling too loud and being told I was being too abrasive and being too dramatic and too emotional. Now I’m finding out those are my strengths. The fact that I am loud, like physically loud is helpful for protests,” she said with a laugh. 

Presently, London said she will continue to build stronger relationships with her friends and seek help when she needs it, making therapy a priority. To London, part of being a good friend means encouraging them to be better, and we should be our own No. 1 best friend. 

“She is the first one to start dancing when you put on a song shamelessly. But she is also the first person that is going to support you when you need something, but at the same time, she’s also gonna hold you accountable when you are not being the best version of yourself,” Sabourin said. 

London currently operates a small scale mutual aid network and hopes to grow her project in the future.

“This is what I think I want to do, actually run a mutual aid network and do the community organizing and empowering young people specifically to take control of the community they’re in,” London said with passion bubbling just below her words. 

And, maybe while she’s at it she’ll run for president, too. 

“I can’t even imagine because all the things she’s already done and she’s only 20 years old. I really can’t even put one thing to it because, humbly, she has so many gifts and she’s so smart and so passionate. I just can’t even imagine, or just put one specific title that I would say. Do I think she can definitely run the country and be a president? Absolutely. Do I think she wants to be? I don’t think she wants to be the president of the U.S,” Shannel said. “But she will continue to be a world changer.” 

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