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Mental illness: A disease of denial

Counting the Cost

Julianne Malveaux | 4/24/2014, midnight

“I’m tired,” my sisterfriend says. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.” As I hear her, I have a couple of choices. One is to tell her to get with her pastor and pray; the other is to tell her to get real with her illness. Running her to her pastor takes her to a familiar place. Pushing her to get help takes her out of her comfort zone. When my beloved brothers and sisters share that they are stymied in the way they live their lives, I don’t mind praying and encouraging spiritual counsel, but I do mind ignoring the medicinal help that could assist my sisterfriend.

According to the National Associations of Mental Health, more than four percent of African Americans have considered suicide. Most of them are African American women. Mental health is our nation’s dirty little secret, and if it is whispered in the nation at large, it is a silent scream in the African American community. We are afraid and ashamed to wrap ourselves around the fear that goes with “coming out” on mental illness.

We are silent even when we loose a warrior. Karyn Washington was a 22-year-old Morgan State University sister who committed suicide, last week. This young and brilliant woman turned her pain into power when she created a website, forbrowngirls.com, that lifted up and affirmed brown-skinned girls. Karyn was a colored girl whose mental issues were apparently so severe that she chose to take her own life.

I chose to focus on this because I have recently spoken to African American women who have experienced depression or feel shackled by other mental health issues. They walk like they hold the world in their hands, sway like they are hearing drums from another continent, and cry behind closed doors like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are sad, ground down, depressed, and we play off of their pain and trivialize it, instead of responding to it. We decide that it is their problem, not the problem of a nation that would inflict—rather than attempt to fix—mental illness. For all the care that the Affordable Care Act has offered, we must ask if it has offered enough to combat mental illness.

The African American community has paid more and received less to be perceived as “normal” members of society. Despite injustices in Scottsboro, Groveland and other vile places in our nation, we have been expected to show up, with amazing dignity, ignoring the massacre of our sons or daughters with well-modulated emotion. Too many of us fear or fail to speak our pain. Poverty and mental health are correlated, yet the poorest of us see our pain as “par for the course” and we don’t speak about it. Whether African Americans are wealthy or financially challenged, mental health is elusive for some. Faith without works is dead, which means fall on those knees if it comforts you, then run to the doctor who may help you with medication and therapy.

Karyn Washington motivated this column, and as I thought of her, others kept reminding me of their own pain and the ways it has been ignored. If you don’t get it, read from Terrie Williams’ Black Pain. Mental health is not an embarrassment; it is a national health issue. It is a silent killer that we have yet to acknowledge.

Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.

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