When she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Lauren Carson tried to kill herself. Twice.
She had been diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 15. She made it through college and graduated with a degree in psychology. But instead of building a career on Wall Street, which had been her plan, in 2012 she created Black Girls Smile, a nonprofit aimed at helping African-American girls and young women deal with mental health issues.
Black Girls Smile, based in Atlanta, operates workshops in public schools and after-school programs there, and in New York and Washington, D.C., to increase awareness of mental health.
Carson, who is 29, is the organization’s executive director. She spoke with STAT recently after she participated in a panel on mental health and technology at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What caused you to struggle in college?
I come from a pretty educated middle-class family. My father is a physician. My mother has a master’s degree. But we never talked about the fact that mental illness actually ran in our family.
In my first year of school I had a ridiculous course load. My father was then activated in the Army, his first time going overseas. I seeped into a really bad depression. To all of my friends and family members, I was still partying and going to class, but I was really struggling.
I went home over spring break and the mask kind of melted off and I didn’t want to live any more. I tried to take all my medications and I was found. I was actually in a mental hospital for three or four days. I was looking around, “Why am I here? This isn’t me.” And then the second time that I ended up in the hospital after my second suicide attempt, I realized these people were me.
Can you say more about those two episodes?
Home was where I couldn’t go to parties and smile when I was struggling. This was an environment where I couldn’t fake it. And that’s where I attempted to take my life twice.
Why did you decide to help others?
After my second suicide attempt, I kind of came out. Prior to that, I didn’t feel comfortable telling my friends or other family members outside of my direct family that I struggled with depression. It opened up this dialogue with people who felt more comfortable coming to me and saying, “Hey, do you have referrals? Hey, what do I do about this family member?” People were coming to me because I had decided to share my story.
What are you trying to achieve with Black Girls Smile?
We don’t focus at all on treatment or diagnosis. We really want to increase mental health literacy and coping skills and self-care methods. Especially in the African-American community, a lot of people are not even seeking assistance to be diagnosed. Most of our programs are focused around African-American girls between the ages of 13 and 19. We really want to catch them early. We want to educate them on their emotions.
We focus on specific statistics that may pertain to African-American girls in language that’s relevant to them. What are things that you do to help you when you’re stressed? “Oh, I like to dance.” OK, if you like to dance, when your boyfriend breaks up with you or you get in a fight with a parent, maybe you want to put some music on and dance.
What’s the biggest misconception about African-American girls and depression?
For a lot of African-American girls, they’re taught to be strong. They’re taught to keep their feelings inside. They are taught that they are the backbone of the African-American community in many ways. For young girls, it’s breaking down this misconception that it’s OK to be in a bad relationship. It’s become OK to be sad a lot of the time. It’s been OK to be angry.
When we talk about mental health, too often people think of someone who has chronic depression, someone who has bipolar disorder. Something that is genetic. Whereas it can be as simple as situational depression: when a family member passes away. When someone loses their job.
You’ve also talked about the language used to describe mental issues.
In the African-American community and in general, when you say, “Are you depressed?” someone’s going to say, “No, I’m not depressed. I don’t need to be on medication.” That’s what I normally hear. Well, having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily equate to medication. That’s another misconception that we very often have to break down.
Are you on any medication now?
I am currently on medication. I was off medication for about a year. But I found that I needed medication to function right now.
What support do you wish you had when you were dealing with these suicide attempts in college?
The biggest void for me was the support aspect. I was so ashamed. I felt so isolated when I was struggling. I didn’t tell anybody. And with me not telling anyone, no one encouraged me to get help.
Is this still a constant struggle for you?
Yes. Definitely. I very much still have depression. But I practice what I preach in that I find things that are constructive and listen to my body: It’s OK to have a bad day. It’s OK to have a bad week. But it’s not OK to have two bad weeks. It’s not OK to have a bad month. So I’m very proactive. When I find it’s been difficult to get out of bed for two weeks, I maybe need to call my therapist, and get in to see her. Or I’ll call my mother and tell her what’s going on.
Your message to African-American girls?
Everyone has mental health. And seeking assistance or help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.