Friday, June 22, 2012

Whispers in the Wilderness: Black Women and Mental Illness

I grew up with the issue of mental illness front and center in my household. My mother was a mental health nurse for 35 years. Mental health was not something I was scared of. Neither was it something that I didn’t understand. I watched my mother work to develop a community mental health program in Barbados. Often in the summer we would travel around with her to visit her patients. Many of these individuals became known to me and not simply as my mother’s patients. Years later, although now retired, my mother still gets calls and is stopped in the street by someone wanting to say thank you. Just last year while I was home the phone rang and I answered. I heard “May I speak with Nurse Harper”? Many still refer to my mother by her maiden name; some even called my father Mr. Harper. He would politely smile and answer without offering a correction. Back to the call—she wanted to tell my mother that her son had passed. My mother helped her and her son some 30 plus years earlier. Witnessing my parents’ interactions with the mentally ill has greatly influenced how I view mental illness. However, over the years, I’ve had to reconcile that the dignity and respect I observed with my parents’ interactions and relationships with the mentally ill was not common. 

Erica J. Kennedy

The recent passing of Erica J. Kennedy, author of Feminista and Bling, has many in the twitter world speculating about her death. Some suggest that she was battling depression and this might have contributed to her death. More specifically some are suggesting that she didn’t reach out. We had a similar conversation when the famed singer Phyllis Hyman committed suicide. I didn’t know Ms. Kennedy neither did I know Ms. Hyman. As such, I’m in no position to speak to their mental well-being. Instead, I thought that I would write about the question that always seems to follow such incidences, “Why didn’t they reach out?”

Phyllis Hyman
In response to this question, I silently reply “would you have listened even if they did?” As a community, we are not open to hearing about other’s struggles and particularly their struggles with mental illness. We ask “How are you?” But we never really stop to listen. We don’t look at people’s faces neither do we read their body language. In fact we often don’t bother to get to know others. We follow them on twitter, stalk them on Facebook, and get linked with LinkedIn. Of all of those that you follow and those that follow you, who do you know? We live in the crevices of our lives not taking a risk for fear that someone might “dump” their problems on us. After all we have our own problems and as such have no desire to collect more. We also live in the crevices of life because of a desire to portray that all is right in our world. Should someone mention a crack in theirs, it might just force us to stop and think that we are overly stressed and might just be at a breaking point ourselves.

We want stories of strength and stories of triumph. Just read either Essence or Ebony magazine; they are filled with such stories. We only seem to want to hear about mental illness when someone has “overcome”. We in the Black community need such stories to survive! As such we don’t give others permission to claim their dignity when we perceive them as challenging our fa├žade of strength. Well some people never overcome. Some folk live in institutions and some live on medications all their lives. This is their means of overcoming. We need to learn how to interact with such individuals. We need to learn to see their dignity. We need to not only give them permission to speak, but we also have to give ourselves permission to listen.

So, if either Ms. Kennedy or Ms. Hyman had publicly displayed their challenges with mental health, would we have stood there and listened? Would we have afforded them their dignity? Would we accept them for who they are or would we marginalize them and walk away with our eyes cast down shaking our heads? 

  •  Depression rate among African American women is approximately 50% higher than that of Caucasian women.
  • Black people account for approximately 25% of the mental health needs.
  • Only 2% of the nation’s psychologists are Black.
My next post will explore the factors behind these statistics. In the meantime let me know your thoughts. 

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