Bebe Moore Campbell, who died Monday at age 56, was outspoken on behalf of people she saw as short-changed by life -- battered spouses, bullied children and people with mental illness. In a November 2005 Morning Edition commentary, the author discussed the mental illness of a close relative.
A few years ago, a member of my family began to speak and behave in a bizarre manner. He stayed awake for days, talked non-stop and spent money recklessly. I was his passenger when he drove close to 100 miles an hour on the freeway. He laughed wildly as he dodged traffic, veered in and out of lanes and ignored my pleas to slow down. He seemed oblivious to the danger. I waited for things to return to normal, but they didn't.
Gradually, my relative became psychotic and violent. One night, I had to call 911 and watch the police drive him to a psychiatric facility. The doctor diagnosed bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by extreme mood swings. The illness became our family's deep, dark secret. Stigma had a hold on us, and stigma is as hard to control as bipolar disorder. "There's nothing wrong with me," my relative declared. It was shame that made him deny the problem and refuse treatment.
Many overwhelmed families can recount tales of calling 911 because of a psychiatric emergency only to have the ill person appear normal when police arrived. Once police appeared at my door moments after my relative had been raging and threatening, but as soon as he saw them, he went into normal mode. Seeing no one who was a danger to himself or others, lacking the criteria to impose a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility, the police left. And my loved one's treatment was delayed once again.
The word "crazy" relegates people to a world of semi-human. My relative didn't want to live there. No one does. Stigma is one of the main reasons why people with mental-health problems don't seek treatment or take their medication. People of color, particularly African-Americans, feel the stigma more keenly. In a race-conscious society, some don't want to be perceived as having yet another deficit. Others find it hard to trust medical personnel who don't seem to understand their culture. Some studies show that Latinos and African-Americans are much more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than whites, even though the illness occurs in all races at the same rate. The psychiatric community must address inequities in treatment.
Once my loved one accepted the diagnosis, healing began for the entire family, but it took too long. It took years. Can't we, as a nation, begin to speed up that process? We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African-Americans. The message must go on billboards and in radio and TV public service announcements. It must be preached from pulpits and discussed in community forums. It's not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.