African Americans Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illiness
Stigma and Judgement Prevents Mental Health Treatment for Minorities “My son started trying to commit suicide when he was eight years old. He’s 22 years old now and I still have to watch him. He still lives with me.” My cousin continued talking shaking her head, “It’s been rough.”
This was a conversation of I had with my cousin Tracy during our 2018 family reunion. As we sat under a big tent on my cousin’s farm in Medon, Tennessee, I mentioned that July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and that I would be moderating a Livestream National Town Hall Question and Answer Discussion to facilitate dialogue about the stigma of mental illness in minority communities. I was shocked, yet not surprised by my cousin’s very frank conversation about her son. Then another cousin chimed in about her adult daughter who suffers from depression. “She’s married now and working. She does fine as long as she stays on her meds.” An unexplained and alarming statistical trend shows that African American children between the ages of five and 12 are committing suicide at roughly twice the rate of white children in the same age group.
As the conversation continued, my mind drifted. I thought, wow, mental illness is more pervasive in my family than I thought. Then remembering, my unce, by marriage, committed suicide, his son, my first cousin committed suicide 20 years later. My maternal grandfather, exhibited signs of depression, my mother, her two sisters and my maternal grandmother all had Alzheimer's disease, but we don talk about it.
During the Sunday family reunion service at our home church down the lil ol dusty road, another cousin testified about her challenges maintaining a "strong mind". "I prayed and told the devil, he couldn't have my mind." I'm pretty sure after church, no on bothered to ask her how she was doing or if they could do anything to help.
As I scanned the congregation, overflowing with kinfolk from across the United States, I wondered how many came to the family reunion for 72 hours of smiles and hellos, they returned home to the unspoken pain of an undiagnosed mental illness of a family member of their own?
The answers to this growing problem are not coming fast enough. Today ninety-five percent of African Americans enter physiatric care through the emergency room. Sixty-five percent of African Americans youth in the juvenile detention centers have a mental illness contributing to an embarrassing number of adults in our prison system with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses.
We need more conversations about early warning signs of mental illness at all ages. Being angry at the drop of a dime is not normal. Having a bad attitude for no reason is not normal. Outbursts of screaming at family and friends is not normal. Hoarding is not normal. Staying locked in your room or your home is not normal. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs is not normal. Experts say that the substance abuse and hoarding is only ten percent of the problem. Ninety percent is an undiagnosed crippling mental illness driving a behavior that punctuates a life with unspeakable pain, further damaging the physical being with a mind trapped in a dark forest with no compass. Sadly, family members and friends do not know how to offer the light of compassion and hope for fear of getting their heads chewed off again.
And so we all suffer. We suffer from the pain of lost relationships and the heartbreak of watching loved ones being destroyed by an illness we cannot see. Addressing mental illness in our families is not a finger pointing session. It is a time to open up and say, I might not be where you are right now, but I have had my struggles too. We must have a safe place where we can share without judgment, without shame. Would it not be nice if that place was at our family kitchen table or at the family reunion? Would it not it be great if every home had the local crisis center telephone number on the refrigerator? We must start talking...and start listening.
Pamela D. Marshall,
Author, Journalist, Podcast Host
Bikram Yoga Instructor, Yoga 2 Life Coach Executive Director At The WELLness Network, Inc.