The Stigma of Mental Illness in Communities of Color

A new study published by the National Institutes of Health says almost half of all Americans will develop some form of mental illness during their lifetime and that many of those diagnosed first experience symptoms during their adolescent years. But in communities of color, the numbers may be more devastating because of the stigma involved. Ed Gordon discusses the issue with Briget Thompson, whose mother suffered from depression and committed suicide six years ago. Also joining the conversation is Dr. Alvin Poussaint of the Judge Baker Children's Center at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Almost half of all Americans will develop some form of mental illness during their lifetime. That's according to a landmark study published this week by the National Institute of Mental Health. And at least half of those will begin to show signs of the disease by age 14. The study also suggests that minorities are more likely to go untreated. That could be because of the stigma often attached to mental illness by people of color. How to eliminate the stigma--we'll talk about that with Dr. Alvin Poussaint in just a few moments.

But first, a personal story. Bridget Thompson(ph) is a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother who lives in Chicago. She's suffered from depression since she was an adolescent. Six years ago, Bridget's mother committed suicide. She also suffers from depression. Since her mother's death, Bridget has shared her experiences at various schools and community centers, and she joins us this morning. Bridget, thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Ms. BRIDGET THOMPSON (Advocate For Mental Health Awareness): Thank you very much, and I thank you for bringing awareness to the support and issue.

GORDON: Well, we appreciate that you are brave enough to come forward and talk about it. Let me ask you, first and foremost, I know when one loses a parent, in particular a mother, it's very difficult in general. It must be, even though six years has passed, very difficult to still live with the idea that your mom committed suicide.

Ms. THOMPSON: Yes. I have to say that this has been the most difficult and loneliest journey that I've had to travel throughout my life. Yeah. My mother will celebrate her sixth--we will celebrate her sixth anniversary of her death on June 14th. And she did suffer a lifetime of mental pain. She committed suicide to end that pain, and the ironic part of all of this is that we lived five years in silence, trying to protect her reputation and lied to everyone what the real cause of her death was.

GORDON: So much of depression and mental illness is lived in silence. You, yourself, have suffered through depression, as well as others in your family; your grandmother, so it--as well as your mother--has been passed on generationally. Let me ask you, first and foremost, you have children. Does this fear of the passing of it generationally grip you with your children?

Ms. THOMPSON: Definitely. I did start noticing that I've developed depression around my--when I was 15, and now that I have children and I have a daughter that's 12, I am very concerned with her mental state. What helps me is that now, instead of living in silence, I'm able to talk about it, and I'm definitely aware of signs and that there's help out there.

GORDON: What did you see early on in your life, and how did you compare that to what you had seen in your mother?

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I never did. I only can compare it now because I'm able to come out of the silent area that we lived in. But back then, you know, it's just--you don't know it's a mental illness. You don't know it's depression. You just know that you're sad. And when you can't stop those thoughts from racing and those dangerous thoughts, the first thing that comes to your mind is trying to end it, and unfortunately, that was my answer. I tried to commit suicide also.

GORDON: Let me a...

Ms. THOMPSON: OK.

GORDON: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Ms. THOMPSON: I'm sorry.

GORDON: Go ahead.

Ms. THOMPSON: No, that was it. Go ahead.

GORDON: You have, in fact, now turned this into a crusade, if you will, come...

Ms. THOMPSON: Definitely.

GORDON: You are, indeed, going to lead a march, is my understanding, in Chicago to help try to bring awareness to this problem and situation.

Ms. THOMPSON: Yes. On July 16th through the 17th, we'll be walking, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and this is the only national not-for-profit organization, which started in 1987. Now recently, they asked me to become a part of the board in the Midwest to help bring awareness in the African-American community. As I said earlier, this has been very lonely, because I live in an African-American community, and there's no one to talk to. So all of my support has been outside of my community. And I think it's so unfair.

And one thing I will say, that I blame our churches for a lot of this, because when we go to church, the first thing that they want to tell you is to pray and give you Scriptures to go home to read. You know, now they wouldn't tell a person with diabetes or cancer to do that. They would expect them to see a specialist, and the same should be expected in a person with a mental illness. You need to see a specialist.

GORDON: Let me now bring Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist. He's also a professor and associate dean at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He joins us from Boston via phone. Dr. Poussaint, always good to talk to you.

Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Harvard Medical School): Good talking to you, Gordon.

GORDON: Let me ask you, you've heard what Bridget has shared with us today. Tell me your thoughts of what you heard in her story, and I know so many stories that lie dormant, unfortunately, in the African-American community can be echoed in the same way.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think she's right that there's a wall of silence about depression and suicide in the black community, but I think it goes beyond stigma. I think stigma--that is letting people know you have a mental problem--is something that makes people feel ashamed, and they think of the possibility of being rejected, but it's also because many African-Americans, perhaps more than white Americans, see being depressed as a personal weakness. And then many of them don't see it as a health problem at all. They see it as something that occurs in life. After all, black people invented the blues, which is now a substitute term or synonym for depression among many people.

But at the same time, black people felt that part of life was to have the blues, that you were going to have a hard time, and so it was an expectation that if you were depressed, well, that's the way it was supposed to be. And I think these attitudes have to change because it's preventing a lot of black people who have a clinical depression from seeking help. I think, too, many of us don't seek help because we feel that we can handle the depression on our own or we feel we can get over it by talking to friends and family, and sometimes that does help. Some depression does pass. And sometimes, friends and families help, too. But if that doesn't work, then they need to get professional help.

I think she's right in saying that many black people rely on the church and will pray for an end to their depression. Now I think that prayer, in some way, does help and may help some people who are depressed. On the other hand, if it doesn't work, if it doesn't help, they have to be ready to turn and look for professional help, and ministers have to be ready to refer them to get professional mental health services if the depression really continues and becomes more severe. Eighty percent of people who see mental health professionals get some help with their depression. It can be maybe not totally cured, but certainly some people feel it can be cured, but certainly the pain of depression can be alleviated, and then the risk of suicide and the other negative outcomes from depression can be helped.

GORDON: Yeah. Doctor, we should...

Dr. POUSSAINT: One last problem--go ahead.

GORDON: Go ahead. I was just going to say we should note in your latest book, "Lay My Burden Down," you took a very close look at suicide and mental health issues amongst African-Americans, and one of the things that we should not pooh-pooh, that often is, is the fact that particularly in the United States, African-Americans do have a harder road to bear, and all of the ills of racism in society do play a part in your day-to-day existence and your mental state.

Dr. POUSSAINT: I think they do. I think racism and the legacies associated with slavery and discrimination have produced and continue to produce additional stress for black Americans. And any type of stress, emotional stress, can make you more vulnerable to getting all kinds of mental disorders or make many of them more severe than they ordinarily would be. So I think that if we eliminated racism and some of the legacies that go with that, that, for instance, one of the signs of depression, when you get very depressed, is a lack of feeling of worthiness.

Ms. THOMPSON: Yes.

Dr. POUSSAINT: You feel a lack of self-worth. Well, if you're also feeling a lack of self-worth because you're black and because of racism in American society, those two feelings are going to combine and make that feeling of worthlessness and futility and hopelessness much more severe than perhaps it ordinarily would be.

GORDON: Bridget, let me ask you this. Just in the normal state of life, sometimes we all get depressed or down. When you get those feelings now, are you fearful that you're falling back into a state...

Ms. THOMPSON: Well...

GORDON: ...of depression or are you able to now cope and deal with it?

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I will say it is very fearful, because my thoughts are racing and I want them to stop, and it's very difficult. Now I will say I was on antidepressants in my 20s. I have since stopped taking them and have been able to manage my depression with diet, exercise and meditation. I have to meditate once a day. So when my thoughts are racing, it's very scary because you start getting dangerous thoughts, and as a matter of fact, I've been, for the last year, attempting to write a book about our journey through this life of mental illness. And it's a scary area and I get overwhelmed, so I keep picking it up and putting it down. But like I said, it's a scary road.

GORDON: And, Doctor, literally with a minute left, we should note and echo your point of not being ashamed to seek help when needed.

Dr. POUSSAINT: That's absolutely right. Now there is an organization nationally that looks at particularly black people and suicide. It's called the National Organization of People of Color Against Suicide, which is located in Washington, DC, and I think the director is associated with Howard University and some programs looking at bipolar disorder and depression among African-Americans. That's the--Bridget might wish to contact in Washington, DC.

Ms. THOMPSON: Definitely.

GORDON: All right. And, Dr. Poussaint's book is "Lay My Burden Down." It takes a look at suicide and mental health issues among African-Americans. He, of course, is a noted psychiatrist and a professor and associate dean at Harvard Medical School in Boston. And Bridget Thompson is an advocate for mental health awareness in Chicago. And we thank you very much, Bridget, for sharing your personal story with us. Dr. Poussaint, again, always good to talk to you.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Thank you.

Ms. THOMPSON: Thank you. Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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