Exploration of Blackness: The fear of mental illness

Friday, February 24, 2012

Me & my son, Gavin
My experiences with Blackness lie in the complicated juncture of communicating through internalized shame and shattering addiction. For the last several years, I have worked in mental health, more specifically, in an inpatient psychiatric unit with adolescents and substance abusers. Contrary to popular belief, substance abuse and chemical dependency are considerable elements of mental illness. In this country, instead of treating addiction as a mental health issue, we treat it as a crime. If that isn’t enough, add to the equation being Black and the stigma often attached to that. There are over 500,000 non-violent drug users in prison at this time, many of whom are Black.
Mental health is often considered an invisible illness. It exists, but it can’t be “seen” so it’s often disregarded. When most people think of a disability, they picture in their minds a person with a visible, obvious impairment. Our visually oriented society may not take the time to look beyond appearances. People tend to believe what they see; and if it can’t be seen, it simply doesn’t exist. Not only has it been grossly disregarded, but mental health illnesses have been severely stigmatized by society. For most people just mentioning the term schizophrenia conjures thoughts of padded walls and strait jackets.

Roughly 35-40 percent of the patient population I worked with was Black. If they were admitted for substance abuse, their drugs of choice was almost always crack cocaine, marijuana or alcohol. If they were admitted in a psychiatric capacity the diagnosis varied from severe depression to schizophrenia. My assumption on why I didn’t see a larger population of Blacks being admitted to mental health facilities is based on this quietly kept secret in the Black community that we just don’t talk about why Uncle Jay acts “funny” sometimes. We sweep incidents like this under the rug or try to pray it away.

Black communities suffer from mental illness just like other communities, but the internal battle some Blacks have with admitting that a child or a family member is ill is structured around a long history of being shamed. Internalized and interpersonal racism have made it difficult for Black families seek help for mental illness or substance abuse. When society already thrusts your likeness to the bottom of the social and economic totem pole, you will do all you can to avoid being even more stigmatized and marginalized – even compromising the health of someone you love. Should you manage to somehow evade the ostracizing behavior of people around you, affording mental health care is near impossible for families in need.

Black communities nationwide suffer from a lack of resources, including access to comprehensive health care. Without even basic access, seeking help for a family member who suffers from mental illness seems like a distant option. The institution I worked at was a non-profit whose mission was to mitigate the use of drugs in the community. However, because of the desperate state of so many local communities, we found ourselves always in the red. At $1600 a day (what some people make in a month) people in need could never afford to have their loved ones treated.

When some families finally brought their children in for help, it was heartbreaking to see the devolvement. Some children could not speak or communicate their needs. They could not use the bathroom without help, feed themselves or engage with other youth. Additionally, many of the youth suffered from Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), behavioral issues, or were just being held in our facility until Office of Children and Families (OCF) could find placement for them. Children who only needed a warm bed and a hot meal ended up on a psych ward because they had nowhere else to go.

On a more personal note, I’ve experienced this with my own son, Gavin. At age two and a half, my son was not speaking. I raised my concerns about his lack of articulation and was told not to worry; he’ll talk when he’s ready. I wasn’t buying it. As a mother, you just know. You know when something isn’t right and this didn’t sit well with me. After a few appointments, Gavin was diagnosed with Autism. He now attends a special school, where I have only seen one other Black boy with Autism. In fact, I personally only know two other Black children who have Autism in this town. It’s not that other Black children in the area aren’t affected by Autism; it’s that they may not be receiving services because of the stigma that something is ‘wrong” with your child, especially your son. I have found myself educating families on the importance of utilizing resources that are available. Pretending nothing is wrong with your loved one will not make the impairment disappear – we have to disregard the stigma and do what’s best for us.

Dealing both with the youth in the psych ward and my own child, I have experienced Blackness in a complicated and enlightening way. I recognize that despite mental instability, Black culture is strong and if we can move past the fear being ostracized for things we have no control over, that strength will deepen.

Sasha Matthews is a Follow Up Specialist with members and providers of mental and physical health for the state of Louisiana. She lives in Baton Rouge with her 4-year-old son, Gavin.