If you haven’t seen ‘This Is Us’, please grab a box of tissues before you pull up a seat in front of the set, because you’ll need them. Randall Pearson (Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown), my favorite character on NCBC’s hit show ‘This Is Us’ highlights a major issue for black men: mental illness, specifically anxiety or panic disorders.
Randall is a middle aged African-American man who’s a perfectionist. Sometimes he sets unrealistic goals and is often overly critical of himself. This attribute is common in a lot of young black men just trying to make it in life. On the show, Randall’s anxiety is a result of his race, getting adopted by a white family as a child, the feeling of being lost, and trying to find himself in an environment where he didn’t completely fit in. Randall’s anxiety issues show how stress can trigger those who suffer from anxiety even in people who look completely in control of their lives. Randall describes himself as “too put together. All the time” insinuating that a clue to anxiety is the constant strive for perfection and balance.
“Panic attacks are characterized by a surge of intense discomfort and fear,” James Murrough, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Health.
“Randall’s character exhibits signs of panic disorder, a form of anxiety in which patients experience recurrent panic attacks throughout their life. It’s common for panic disorder to start in childhood,” Dr. Murrough says—and in a flashback scene, we see young Randall experiencing an attack while doing homework.
“Panic disorder patients typically suffer their first attack out of the blue, but after that, stress can be a trigger.” And there’s no denying that Randall has a lot on his plate. He tracked down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), after 36 years, only to learn that the man is dying of cancer. Shortly after, he finds out that his mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) knew who William was all along and didn’t tell him. Plus, he’s dealing with pressure at work and is struggling to devote enough time to his family, leading to an attack that leaves him feeling as if he’s about to die. Says Dr. Murrough: “This was a pretty accurate portrayal. When you’re experiencing a panic attack, it can feel like you’re dying or losing your mind.”
There’s this stigma that mental illness equals “white people problems”, which is a dangerous fallacy to teach a maturing black man. To me, despite Randall’s suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, he’s still the best father, sibling, and husband one could ask for. His wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), handles his anxiety exceptionally well. She supports his feelings and listens to his obscene scenarios in order to help calm him down. I believe that presentation is a great example for other black men to witness. Black men should not feel like they are “overreacting” or being “dramatic” when experiencing anxiety.
Anxiety is very real and its affects significant. The most iconic anxiety episode was when Kevin (Justin Hartley), Randall’s brother leaves the opening of his play to go comfort Randall during an intense panic attack. The feels! Another great scene is when Randall’s father asks him about his “breakdown”, highlighting the language that should be used when talking to people with mental illness. Randall corrects him by saying “anxiety” and “anxiety attack” allowing them to talk about it openly because they both had an empathetic understanding.
I hope others took notice. We often forget how our words shape people’s ideas. “Breakdown” has so much more of a negative connotation than “anxiety attack”, and might signify something entirely different, for example: film stars can be said to experience “breakdowns” when they go on coke binders and have sex with half of Hollywood.
Luckily, consciousness, and acknowledgement of mental illness in the black community, is gaining more respect. In 2016, Kid Cudi went public about his struggle with anxiety and depression and started #YouGoodMan as a way of letting others know they’re not alone and can get help. And recent tweets from random individuals have shown this acknowledgement:
As Black men we've been taught not to talk about mental illness or express our emotions. Glad we're having the conversation. #YouGoodMan ?
— Dakari A. Barnes (@dk_barnes1) October 5, 2016
feeling like you can't talk about your depression and anxiety only makes it worse. I'm glad ppl are shaking the stigma #YouGoodMan
— Donwill (@donwill) October 5, 2016
I thought I had to be Atlas for years. All the problems & worries of others belonged on my back because I had to carry the world #yougoodman
— No Relation, Esq. (@TheCosby) October 5, 2016
I help someone I love dearly to navigate and cope with their anxiety. Sometimes you can see the buildup of overwhelming emotion in their eyes, shoulders and hands. You can literally see the panic in the panic attack and it’s scary. More for them, than me. I think for my loved one and me, talking through the stressor is the first step. Have them realize and aloud that the stress factor is not the end all, be all.
Merely telling someone having an attack to “calm down” is redundant, and may potentially cause more harm than good—naturally, if you’re calm, you will be down, or at ease. No need to over-stress this. Nobody wants to have a panic attack. Listening to the concerns and worries of whomever is having a panic attack is the next step. I will simply and calmly ask them “why?” to all concerns and stresses. Then the person will verbally explain why.
Each “why?” leads to indications that everything will be fine or that there is a simple solution. Walk/talk them through the stress. Eventually they can calm themselves. And that’s what I love about ‘This is Us’—it has shown the characters using these same techniques. It’s well worth the watch. I cannot recommend it enough. Anxiety sufferer or not, it has enough value that we can all learn a little bit more about the subject.