The Darker Side of Thanksgiving

Jordan Brown

You know, Thanksgiving isn’t always the best day for everyone.

For me, 11 years ago, it was one of the worst days of my life.

Because, on that day, I forced my mom to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

On that day, I had to tell her I would have to call the police if she tried to leave.

Thankfully, it all worked out, and she’s back to her old self now.

But it was a terrible, terrible day that stretched into the early morning of the next day while waiting for the on-call psychiatrists and social workers who would rotate through the space where me and my family were waiting for answers.

Think about this strange fact: Thanksgiving in the United States is a day when media and corporations almost force you to be happy and spend time with others.

But, that’s not always how everyone feels about the holiday.

Let’s explore the reason why I’m writing this and what you could learn from a mistake I made.

My Wife Convinced Me to Write This

Did you know that this month is Native American Heritage Month in the United States?

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know this.

I’ve read books like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I try to educate myself about different people’s perspectives. I’m a social worker, for crying out loud.

I’ve worked in places like the Blackfeet Reservation, and, before he passed away, I considered someone who lived in Browning, Montana on the reservation my long-lost brother.

But I still didn’t even stop to think this year about how Thanksgiving is perceived for a large percentage of the population in this country.

Thanksgiving is not exactly the wonderful, Kumbaya experience that U.S. schools want you to believe. Thanksgiving, for many people in this country, is a visceral reminder of a removal of a people from their land, of forced migrations to other areas, and of a legacy of government boarding schools and government-sanctioned physical and sexual abuse.

And believe me, this is NOT something that is old news. This is an everyday experience for many people. I was shocked to hear how often elders’ boarding school experiences came up in conversation when I worked on the Blackfeet Reservation. It horrified me how much pain they were still experiencing.

But I want to be careful here.

I, in no way, want to say how entire groups of people are feeling. My friends and colleagues have educated me that there is no one, universal tribal experience.

That would be generalizing, and there are diverse experiences between groups and within groups.

I consider myself multiracial, but my experience is very different from someone who grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood.

But for many, many people, their stories are not heard, seen, or even expressed by national-level media outlets and businesses.

And this gets to the root of serious mental health issues.

What Happens When You Don’t See What Others See

And so I think of some of the people my wife has worked with in her jobs.

And I think of some of the friends I’ve made who have lived on various reservations in Montana.

And I think about how it’s embarrassing that I haven’t given much thought at all to their interpretation of Thanksgiving in the United States.

You know, my wife is right. I did need to write an issue about this.

Because it’s one thing when people know about your experiences but don’t want to discuss them.

It’s another thing entirely when you’re so invisible that people don’t even know anything about your experiences in the first place.

And being invisible can have extremely damaging effects on a person’s mental health.

What’s the Thanksgiving Takeaway Here?

I hope you don’t come away from this thinking you’re a bad person if you don’t think about certain things.

I’ll admit, I felt like that at first.

My hope is that this Mental Health Update encourages you to consider ideas, experiences, and people you may not have considered at all before.

Thanksgiving is not this monolithic thing. It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience.

It was one of my favorite holidays as a kid, but a serious mental health crisis changed that for me.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Because I think part of growing up involves a growing in, a deepening of heart and spirit.

The older we get, the more we experience.

We can choose to embrace what mass media and businesses want us to feel.

Or we can decide for ourselves.

The second path is the tougher one.

But in the end, I believe it’s the much more meaningful of the two.

Let's walk alongside one another. We'll learn more that way.