“You can't be anything to anyone else if you're not of service to yourself."

By Kelly Glass
September 23, 2020
Gabrielle Union on pattern background
Credit: Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (1)

Gabrielle Union is transparent about mental health. The actress, activist, and mother of five in a blended family with husband Dwyane Wade says there’s too much mystery around mental health, healing, and how it relates to education. “I’m just trying to strip away all of that and talk about it unapologetically and clearly to create more community and more healing,” she says.

Union, who’s a panelist in this year’s Second Citizen Verizon Assembly focusing on education and mental health, says she’s been a long-time part of the mental health community. “For the past 22 years I’ve been talking about being a rape survivor and what PTSD looks like for Black women,” she says. “I leaned heavily on therapy and group therapy.” 

Union says, as a Black woman, she often wants to be of service to all marginalized people, and recently her husband’s words reminded her of what comes first: “You can't be anything to anyone else if you're not of service to yourself, and you do that through therapy.”

The coronavirus pandemic has upended much of our lives, and Union says it’s especially daunting for families dealing with food scarcity, economic insecurity, and other adversities. With two public health crises in full swing in America, Union said her PTSD is heightened.

“We're in a racial reckoning, and those paths of that racial reckoning is littered with countless images of Black bodies being brutalized, and no one knows what that can do long-term, short term, to your soul and your psyche,” she says. And children are not immune to the mental health effects of pandemic-related stress.

The actress says her and Wade stay aware of how their children, ranging from toddler to teen, are handling it all by taking it day by day. “Kids are kind of like us. Some days are better than others. You feel like, ‘oh, my gosh! I can do everything. It's amazing! I'm gaining all the information!” she says. “And then there's days where it's just like complete regression.” The changes are even noticeable in 22-month-old Kaavia, she says. “She’s not been around kids as much and she’s been doing things that are very adult-like, like inexplicably making old-people noises when she gets off the couch or pulling her pants over shirts,” she says jokingly yet with serious intent. “Imagine just not being around your peers.” It’s a lot for kids, and Union says she keeps that in mind when parenting.

In the beginning of the pandemic, she says they “leaned into a one-size-fits-all” approach to parenting but have since made a complete shift. “We parent each kid very differently because we're just in unchartered waters,” she says. With 13-year-old daughter Zaya, they had to create a boundary with how much media she consumes. After watching "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix, Union says her and Wade have Zaya turn in her phone, laptop, and iPad at 10 p.m. on the dot until the next day after school. “At a time when there’s just so much going on, phones are such an easy outlet and it’s easy to get distracted, so for us, we had to just take it away,” she says.

One thing that has worked well for all of the Wade kids is creating a schedule. “Anything that you can do with repetition and creating a bit more normalcy has worked pretty well for our family,” she says. Schedules aside, Union says it’s key to be flexible in such unstable times. “I'm not going to flip out if Kaav only wants to eat yogurt for three days in a row,” she says. “It’s not ideal, but I’m picking and choosing.” The mental health advocate focuses on being reasonable with her reactions and trying not to sweat the small stuff. “We're all inundated with stress and worry,” she says. “We’re all just muddling our way through quarantine, and I’m not ashamed to say we have to reboot a few times until we get it right.”