Republished in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.
When you see a man walking down the street talking to himself, what is your first thought? Most likely it’s, “He is crazy!” What about the lady at the bus stop yelling strange phases? You immediately become guarded and move as far away from her as possible. I know you’ve done it. We all have.
We are so quick to judge others on the surface level without taking the time to think that maybe God is placing us in a situation for a reason. Maybe it is a test and in order to pass, you must show love and compassion for something or someone that you do not understand.
Perhaps the man or woman you judge are suffering from a mental illness. However, do not be deceived by appearances, because mental illness does not have “a look.”
More Than What Meets The Eye
When most people look at me, they see a successful, 20-something-year-old woman who is giving of herself and her time. In the past, they would only see a bubbly, out-going, praying and saved young lady who is grounded in her faith. When outsiders look at me, they often see someone with two degrees from two of America’s most prestigious institutions, an entrepreneur who prides herself on inspiring others to live life on purpose, and simply lets her light shine despite all obstacles.
However, what so many do not know is that there was a time when I was dying on the inside. On a beautiful summer morning, at the tender age of 25, I suddenly felt sick. It was not the kind of sick where one is coughing with a fever and chills. I felt as if there were a ton of bricks on top of my body and I could not move my feet from the bed to the floor.
Then, there were times when I was unable to stop my mind from racing. I had a hard time concentrating on simple tasks and making decisions. My right leg would shake uncontrollably and I would get so overwhelmed by my mind.
It was in those moments when I inspired to begin researching depression and anxiety. I had the following thoughts as I read the symptoms: “This sounds like me. But, if I’m diagnosed with depression and anxiety, does this mean I am no longer grounded in my faith? Would I walk around claiming something that the Christians deemed as not being a “real” disease? Am I speaking this illness into existence?”
NAMI also describes anxiety as chronic and exaggerated worrying about everyday life. This can consume hours each day, making it hard to concentrate or finish routine daily tasks.
As the months passed, my symptoms became progressively worse and I became so numb to life. I slowly began to open up to my church family and some of the responses I received were so hurtful. I received a variety of suggestions on everything from speaking in tongues for 20 minutes to avoiding medication because it would make my condition worse.
As a result, I did not know what to do. I felt lost and alone, because a community that I turned to first in my time of trial and tribulation did not understand me. I was so deep in my depression that praying and reading my Bible was too difficult of a task to complete.
As time went on, I eventually went to the doctor and guess what? I was right. I went undiagnosed for over 10 years. Imagine the consequences if a person with cancer, AIDS/HIV or diabetes went undiagnosed.
The Breaking Point
I eventually found myself in the hospital after a friend called 911 to notify them of my suicide attempt. I was so removed from life that when the doctor asked me the day of the week and date, I could not tell him.
Honestly, I can tell you a number of reasons why I tried to commit suicide. Some of them were external factors, such as finances. Some of it was burn-out. Some of it was unresolved childhood issues and genetics.
However, after learning my family medical history, I discovered that several members of my family battled mental illness during their lifetime. Both of my parents battled mental illness, and my grandfather informed me about the time he tried to commit suicide at the age of 14. My uncle was admitted to the hospital due to schizophrenia.
A Bright Future
Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed. God has placed amazing people in my life from family members, friends who are simply extended family, doctors, therapists, and medication.
While my goal is not to rely on medication for the rest of my life, I am grateful that I found something that works while I work through recovery. Looking back to where I was about two years ago, I would have never saw myself living life with depression and anxiety.
I believe in the power of prayer and God’s word. As the scripture states in James 2:17, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” This leads me to believe that no matter how difficult the situation is, I will have to work towards healing and recovery even though I have a strong foundation and faith.
Do you have words of encouragement for someone who is battling mental illness? Share your thoughts below.
“Black people don’t commit suicide. That’s a white thing.”
Who said that? That is a false statement. Blacks suffer from mental illness just like their white counterparts. In fact, when you think of everyday stressors, systematic-racism such as police brutality, education and health care gaps, and sexism that impacts black women, blacks are more likely to be at risk for developing a mental condition.
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and this is a perfect time to shed light on what many deem a nonexistent problem. Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder, bulimia, ADHD, OCD and social anxiety are examples of mental illnesses that people battle daily. In the black community, many choose not to acknowledge mental illness as a sickness. Diseases such as diabetes and cancer are accepted as normal and natural, but what so many fail to realize is that blacks are no different than any other race when it comes to these illnesses. We are not exempt from mental illness.
While some experience mental illness only once in their life (depending on the illness, environment, life stressors, and genetics), others battle mental illness for the rest of their lives. Some of us think that we do not have a problem and truly believe that everyone else is the issue. Unfortunately, these myths and illusions force us to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Mental illness affects “everyday functional” people and it is not limited to the homeless man talking to himself. It impacts a person’s emotions, perception, and behaviors.
As a person with major depression and generalized anxiety disorders, the comments said to me have been heartbreaking and mind-blowing because it prevented me from seeking help. I thought that I was making it up in my head even though I didn’t feel well for years. Finally diagnosed at 25, my doctor stated that the illness started around the age of 13. Can you imagine having cancer without being diagnosed for over 10 years? You would die. Well, I can tell you that I was dying on the inside and it led to multiple suicide attempts. My illness can get so debilitating. At one point, it stopped me from doing basic things such as going to work, talking, eating and showering.
Here are some of the myths that we must stop saying!
Myth #1: Only white people commit suicide.
Fact: According to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013 and the rate among white children committing suicide declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys. While whites still have highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have significantly grown over the past decade. Unfortunately, black youth are killing themselves more frequently than their elders. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24 and a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years in the United States.
Myth #2: Medication doesn’t work and/or they make you feel worse.
Fact: Medication is necessary for some individuals in their mental recovery. While they are NOT cures for mental illness, they are vital for treating the symptoms. Some may need medication for the rest of their lives (depending on the illness) and others only need it for a specific time. Nonetheless, medication is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean the person is crazy. It is no different from taking medication for high blood pressure or insulin for diabetes. Just like the body gets sick, the brain gets sick too, if you don’t take care of it. And no, this is not to say that everyone with a mental illness will need medication, but it is an invaluable help to many.
Myth #3: Black people don’t go to therapy.
Fact: Though there has been a deep-rooted stigma about seeking therapy, Blacks are increasingly seeking therapy for mental illness. Therapy is great whether you have a mental illness or not. Therapy helps you to work on yourself, dissect problems, face fears and overcome obstacles such as breakups, loss of a loved one, financial challenges, self-image issues, abuse, etc. As mentioned previously, blacks deal with oppression daily and therapy can help us work through it. Those who are still hesitant to try therapy can look into other ways of getting help. The support of a life coach has also been shown to be beneficial for many.
Myth #4: You can pray it away.
Fact: As a Christian, I have seen God perform miracles in my life. But when you say to a person “just pray,” you are assuming that they are not praying and dismissing how they feel, challenging the sincerity of their faith, and most likely preventing them from getting treatment. You would not say “just pray” to a person who broke a leg. You would tell them to go to the doctor for an x-ray and cast. We must treat mental illness the same. God also gives us resources to use on earth and sometimes that may be therapy and medication when a person is battling a mental illness.
Damian Waters is a marriage and family therapist in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he serves predominantly African American clients. On the issue of the stigma surrounding blacks seeking therapy, he says, “There’s some shame and embarrassment. You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”
As a way to honor those with mental illness, please think before you speak, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment. Mental illness is just as serious as any other disease and those affected by it should not be judged or outcast. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not a character flaw, or a white people problem.
Can you think of other myths surrounding Blacks and mental illness? Share them below along with your thoughts on putting the myths to rest once and for all.
IN THE SHADOWS: Shame and stigma can be barriers to treatment for mental illness. Could this be one reason for the secrecy surrounding Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s mood disorder hospitalization?
After weeks of speculation about why U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) has been on medical leave from Congress for “exhaustion” since early June, his office finally announced that he is receiving “intensive” inpatient treatment for an unspecified mood disorder and is “expected to make a full recovery.” The statement did not say what the disorder is, where Jackson is being treated, or who is treating him, The Chicago Tribune reported, but it did say he is not being treated for alcoholism as had been rumored. Citing privacy concerns, Jesse Jackson Sr. has declined to discuss the specifics of his son’s illness with the press, but surrogates have shot down rumors that Jackson Jr. attempted suicide. Speaking at the Rainbow PUSH coalition conference in Chicago last week, his mother, Jackie Jackson, said her son “is unwell” and “needs a moment to heal.” She also suggested that he lacks the internal resources of his parents in dealing with political “disappointments.” “I want to encourage him to hold on – to hold on to God’s unchanging hand, not this politics. See, I play politics, I don’t live it. I live in the house with God,” said Mrs. Jackson.
JESSE JACKSON JR.: The congressman has been sidelined by scandal and now an unspecified mood disorder.
Jackson Jr. has been caught up in the scandal that sent former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison for attempting to sell President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. He is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for allegations that he participated in a scheme to fund raise for Blagojevich in exchange for the seat. Amidst the scandal, Jackson Jr. also admitted to having an extramarital affair.
Randy Auerbach, a psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News that Jackson may have “a genetic predisposition that might make him more vulnerable to a mood disorder.” Depression and bipolar disorder are cited as common mood disorders in the article, with nearly 17 percent of the population experiencing depression in their lifetimes and 4 percent receiving a bipolar diagnosis. “An individual may have a certain vulnerability and in presence of stress, it may trigger the onset of a disorder,” Auerbach said. “Significant life stress is enough to contribute to a depressive episode about 50 percent of the time.”
Because stigma and shame are often barriers to treatment for African Americans and may be playing a role in the secrecy surrounding Jackson Jr.’s diagnosis, we decided to talk to LaTonya Mason Summers, executive director of LifeSkills Counseling and Consulting Group in Charlotte, North Carolina, about Jackson Jr.’s hospitalization and common barriers to treatment in the Black community. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Jesse Jackson Jr. has reportedly been hospitalized for a mood disorder. In general, something serious has to be going on for someone to be admitted for inpatient treatment. Is that correct?
LaTonya Mason Summers: Yes, absolutely. There are usually three criteria to go inpatient. You have to be homicidal, suicidal, or in a psychotic state. People are not admitted for mental exhaustion, unless it’s mental exhaustion with suicidal ideation and a plan. For mental exhaustion, you go on vacation.
If someone has financial resources, could they just check themselves into a facility?
That I don’t know. The criteria may not be the same at centers where you go when you have money. But on our level, you have to be psychotic, suicidal or homicidal.
I’ve heard at least one person express skepticism about Jackson Jr.’s diagnosis. As a journalist, I understand that, but I still find it difficult to believe someone would accept the stigma of having a mood disorder to avoid prosecution.
You would be surprised. I’m not saying that is true or not, but there is a protection when it’s mental health. If you go out of work for mental health, you cannot be fired. When you are in an inpatient hospital, you cannot be arrested. There are certain things that cannot happen until you are discharged.
In our email conversation, you said decreasing barriers to mental health in the Black community is your “soapbox.” Why?
Because here in North Carolina, there are not many African-American providers and I think it helps to have African-American providers, so that African American clients have more access to care. Because there are not many providers, the consumers haven’t necessarily been there, but the number is growing.
One thing I do is I groom African-American providers in the community through the North Carolina Black Mental Health Alliance. A friend of mine and I formed that so that professionals in the community could go further. Some of them might have Bachelors degrees and we encourage them to get Masters degrees. We provide internships and opportunities and we supervise them through licensure so that they are more qualified to provide services. And then, I groom clinicians so that they can become private practitioners and not necessarily work in mental health institutions. There is more of a stigma with those institutions, so African Americans are not as likely to get services if they have to go to a local mental health center. But on a more private level, it’s more acceptable.
Also, churches are becoming more accepting of mental health problems. For African Americans, the church has always been the place to go when you needed help. But the church would say, “Just pray,” “Let go and let God,” and “Keep it in the church or keep it to yourself.” Now that they’re becoming more open, more African Americans are coming to counseling.
According to a National Alliance on Mental Illness fact sheet on African American mental health, only two percent of psychiatrists, two percent of psychologists, and four percent of social workers are Black. Does that sound about right to you?
What kinds of things are barriers to care?
One is a language barrier. This is a double-edged sword, but a lot of African-American clients come to me and say, “I’m so glad that there are African-American providers because I can say things to you that I wouldn’t say to a White person.” They might say, “Girl, I wanted to beat the black off my kid.” Well, that is a common colloquialism, but should they say that to someone who is not African American, then the department of social services might be called. The double-edged sword is that we African-American therapists may miss abuse because we understand that terminology.
Also, there is a class issue. I had a White therapist who used to work for me when maybe 90 percent of my practice was African American. She was working with a child and also working with the mom on parenting issues. She told the mom to get the child a dog. Now, we know dogs are therapeutic and if you say that to one culture, that may be more acceptable, but to this African American family that was struggling financially, the mom was thinking, “I can’t really feed my kids. How in the world am I going to go get a dog?”
Another thing is that White clinicians may recommend medications more readily than African-American clinicians. I’ve been doing this for 16 years and African-American clients still freeze up when I recommend medication because there is a stigma of taking medications, whereas in the White population that’s okay.
I’ve read that African Americans tend to be diagnosedwith more severe mental illnesses than Whites who present with similar symptoms. What do you recommend to overcome these kinds of obstacles?
I definitely recommend counseling and I don’t recommend that African Americans only go to African Americans. I would say there are some African Americans we may not be able to relate to. Culturally, lower income populations may not necessarily come to a designer dressed African-American professional because that might present a barrier. But for someone who can come down a bit and be more urban, but still professional, they may be able to relate. I also recommend that churches be open to recommending counseling and psychiatry and I recommend diversity training for those in the mental health field.
Has the situation gotten any better?
LA TONYA MASON SUMMERS: “For African Americans, the church has always been the place to go when you needed help.”
No. Most of the studies that are done for medications are done on White middle class volunteers, so psychiatrists and physicians still have to adjust the medication and dosages for African Americans. We feel like guinea pigs in trying to find the right dosages. Volunteers in the some of the depression studies are White middle class Americans. Africans Americans don’t show up for stuff like that. So it’s kind of hard to put something together for us because we don’t participate in those kinds of things. I was trained at primarily White Appalachian State University, and even counseling theories were developed by Whites. And so, African-American clinicians have to adapt those theories for African Americans, because they just don’t fit.
And yet, according to the NAMI fact sheet, some of the social barometers that hinder African Americans in regard to wealth, employment, family structure, etc. are associated with greater risk for mental illness. Have you seen an increase in distress among Blacks since the economic downturn?
Yes. I started doing trainings three or four years ago on treating “recession depression.” Someone made up that description, but I thought it was great and started doing research and started publishing on it. The thing that would happen in my practice is that there were Caucasians and upper class African Americans who used to have money and would come for counseling to deal with downward emotions and a down-turned economy, but then the lower income African Americans who had always struggled were struggling even more, so I would have to adapt counseling for two different populations.
How did you adapt it for those populations?
In counseling we don’t ask about money, and so when I started training therapists, I was saying we have to ask people about money, because money is still taboo. People would tell us everything under the sun, but would not bring up financial issues. When you ask, you hear people are in foreclosure, repossessions, and filing bankruptcy. But those are things we would have never known and still don’t know unless we ask. Then, knowing community resources and national resources. What is North Carolina doing for homeowners? What is the U.S. doing? What’s going on in the White House, where they are providing resources for people who are losing their houses and jobs?
It can be difficult for working class people to pay for treatment in a good economy. I can’t imagine in this economy that it’s even an option.
I take Master’s degree level students who are training to become counselors as interns twice a year, and I run a free counseling program, because so many North Carolinians are without insurance. If you don’t have insurance, the only resources available are local mental health centers, but African Americans do not want to go there. No one wants to go there. They’re loud. You may not get the best care. You’re a number. All of that. So, we run a five-month program twice a year, for ten months throughout the year with these students. With supervision, they counsel people who don’t have insurance. It’s a huge program. There are a couple of my colleagues who do the same thing, but if many of us would take it on, people who don’t have insurance could get the help they need.
What I hear you saying is that you would encourage people to get help if they need it.
Yes, I certainly would and hopefully there will come a day when we’ll be able to name disorders, and it won’t be some mystery illness. Should Jackson Jr. name it, there might be more people who come forward, especially as influential as he is. Politically, I know they may not necessarily want to say, but when we lay people see celebrities dealing with stuff, we find it inspirational and encouraging. But there’s still that stigma of mental illness where you can’t give a name. It has to be some mystery.
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