Mental Illness in the African-American Community

Ed Gordon talks with author Bebe Moore Campbell about her latest book 72 Hour Hold, in which Campbell challenged African Americans to talk honestly about mental illness and how its treatment affects their families.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Author Bebe Moore Campbell is trying to remove the stigma attached to mental illness. In her latest novel, "72 Hour Hold," Campbell deals with a topic often left in the dark: mental illness. She hopes her novel will help eliminate the stigma attached to psychological disorders. Campbell began by explaining her book's title.

Ms. BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL (Author, "72 Hour Hold"): Seventy-two-hour hold refers to the length of time a psychiatric facility can hold a mentally ill person against his or her will if he or she meets the criteria, the criteria being he's a danger to self, he's a danger to others or he's gravely disabled. It's a story of a mother whose child is mentally ill and the mother is seeking healing, gets frustrated with the mental-health system and then seeks radical means to free her child.

GORDON: Campbell says the novel is an echo, but not a direct reflection, of her personal experience.

Ms. CAMPBELL: I have a mentally ill family member, and I've been taking the journey with my loved one for about the last six to eight years. And so I began to know that world. And for the first couple of years, I was very much shut down about my loved one's condition, and then gradually I sort of let--I was able to shrug off the stigma that is so prevalent when you're dealing with a person with mental illnesses. And as I was able to talk about it, as I got involved in a support group, as I co-founded with some other people a chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Los Angeles in the African-American community of Inglewood, then I began to give myself permission to write about it, and that's what I've done in "72 Hour Hold."

GORDON: Is it more difficult or less difficult to take something that is close to you personally and spin it into a novel?

Ms. CAMPBELL: You know, Ed, I wrote a memoir, "Sweet Summer," and I think the difficulty with the memoir was in deciding how much truth to tell and where you draw the line in terms of what might offend the people you love. With a novel, I mean, primarily, I'm making this story up. I'm borrowing from things that I've experienced, but I'm not the protagonist. My loved one is not, you know, the person in the story. So it's freer, actually. You know, I can take all that passion, all that experience, and then infuse it with my storytelling ability and I can just run with it. And I think the book wrote itself.

GORDON: What was the hardest part about this particular book? It's interesting to see the dynamic and the play between the mother and the daughter in the book, and albeit a favorite subject of many writers, you see so many twists and turns. What was the most fun in constructing this?

Ms. CAMPBELL: I've not used first person in a long time. I used it partially in my previous novel, "What You Owe Me," and what I liked about it was I could really get into the main character's head, really get into her point of view, and almost become that person. And that was something that I really relished.

GORDON: You mentioned the idea of actually having a family member that is dealing with mental illness. When you write this book, is it also an attempt to wake up society, to say, `Look, this is something that you shouldn't be afraid of, but we have to deal with'?

Ms. CAMPBELL: The work I do with NAMI Inglewood--we give a 12-week course that's absolutely free to those family members of people with mental illnesses on the diseases of the brain. We have a support group for the family members. We have a support group for people with mental illnesses as long as they're following their doctors' orders. Part of this book tour, Ed, quite frankly, is my mission to get mental illness out of the closet, and particularly out of the African-American closet. Society in general is stigmatized by mental illness. No one wants to say, `I don't have control of my mind.' No one wants to say, `I have a family member who doesn't have control of his mind.' But people of color, particularly black people, really don't want to own up to it. We're already stigmatized by virtue of the color of our skins, and then when you add something else to it, it's just too much.

And I think the best example that I can think of is the movie "Soul Food," the movie that was in the theaters. And they had the character Uncle Pete, and Uncle Pete was up in that back bedroom, never came out. The daughters would give him his food, and then he'd open the door and slide the dinner tray out. And, you know, we have so many Uncle Petes in the black community and we say, you know, `Uncle Pete is strange.' `Well, you know, Uncle Pete doesn't like to be around people.' `Well, you know, Uncle Pete'--this and that. But we never say, `Uncle Pete has schizophrenia,' because we don't want to own up to that.

And when I first discovered NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill--I live in Los Angeles--I had to go to Beverly Hills. The thing about being in denial and being in the closet and bowing down to stigma is you don't get any information, and after being in that organization with some friends who were also family members of mentally ill people, we decided, `Hey, we need to start this on our side of town.' And so part of my mission for this book tour is to get black people owning up to the fact that, yes, we have mental illness in our families, and to know that recovery is possible, but it's not possible if you stay in the closet.

GORDON: The latest is "72 Hour Hold." If you're looking for some reading over the summer, here's something that at times is a little heavy, but one can believe if it's from Bebe Moore Campbell, as always, it's very good.

And we thank you for your time.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Thank you.

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