A tragedy of epic proportions and a crisis of mental health

As I was out enjoying a leisurely Saturday, I checked into social media land and came across the horrifying story about Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins. Belcher a member of the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his girlfriend in front of her mother and a short time later drove to the Arrowhead Stadium where team officials attempted to calm him down when Belcher then pulled out his gun and took his own life in front of members of the Chief’s staff.

Prior to this incident, I had never heard of Jovan Belcher, which considering that I am not a sports fan is not surprising; but I do know that he was a young Black man, only a few years older than my own boy. As such when I hear these types of stories, I am momentarily speechless. From the news reports I have read this was a young couple in love with a brand new baby and at least on the surface there was no hint of problems.

I must admit that as details came across twitter about this incredibly sad and tragic story, I once again found myself thinking about the mental health crisis in the Black community. While the Black community is not one singular monolithic group, we do have a mental health crisis that I think is threatening the very fabric of our community. Outside of a handful of better educated pockets within the Black community, mental health issues are still downplayed or discounted. Too many times we use color euphemisms to describe mental health issues and too often believe all we need is more prayer or whatever when in some cases what is needed is medication and talk therapy. Even when a member of the Black community does go public about mental health issues; as Jesse Jackson Jr. did when it was revealed he was being treated for bipolar disorder, too many times such admissions are met with skepticism in the Black community.

Too many times treatable mental health disorders are not treated and instead people self-medicate, using food, alcohol, drugs or sex as the treatment of choice. I didn’t know Jovan Belcher but I can’t help wondering what  was going on his life that led him to take the life of his partner (which is another whole story, since in choosing to kill his partner, he turned her into a victim of domestic violence) and then his own life. I do know however that healthy people rarely resort to the level of violence that occurred on this sad morning. Some reports suggest that there was an argument between Belcher and Perkins before he took her life, argument or not, things should never escalate to this point where violence ensues.

It is well known that diabetes or sugar as some call it disproportionately affects the Black community, yet no one balks at going to the doctor and addressing their physical health if not with diet and exercise at least with medication. Yet too many of us are still hesitant to talk openly and honestly about our mental health.  The shame and stigma keep us from going public; it is the reason that 12 years ago when I found myself in therapy, I didn’t tell anyone but my husband and best friend. It’s the reason that when my dearest and oldest friend found herself in a locked mental institution, she didn’t tell me until after the fact. Yet these secrets are literally killing us because our kids don’t know that it is okay to need help, that we aren’t these uber strong caricatures that the media presents, we are humans.

As the mother of a young brown man, I am even more aware that the code of man (I just made that up) that exists with our young men creates a culture where our young men who are constantly dealing with societal stressors don’t feel they can be open and honest with one another. Men in general tend to be private but within the young Black man culture that seems to at times thrive on surface issues there is little time and energies dedicated to real talk, where one brother can call another brother when in crisis and get help rather than resorting to violence.

In the end words fail me, all I can think about is a young child who will never know her parents. Blessings on these families and may they find the courage to carry on.



4 thoughts on “A tragedy of epic proportions and a crisis of mental health”

  1. I am in medical school and I have strongly considered being a psychiatrist for this very reason. Before entering school, I have worked part time in psychiatric hospitals in Chicago, mostly on weekends. I did this for over 20 years while working in Corporate America during the week. The issue of mental health in the black community is very complex. For my Corporate America job, I worked on HIV, pain, cardiovascular and psychiatric medication from a marketing and public relations standpoint. While some may not see a connection between any of those modalities, they are connected because they each disproportionally affect African Americans. And often, we don’t get treatment (if we do at all) until the issue has become extremely serious. Which brings me to psychiatric issues…In my experience, it is still taboo for African Americans to see a counselor or a psychiatrist. The black church was instrumental in helping us get through and out of slavery and it was the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. So it is not any wonder that we have people today who believe that illnesses (physical or mental) can be cured by prayer and church? I experienced that a lot in my respective professions. This was especially the case with mental illness. Furthermore, if we were to look at the drug epidemic in the United States, many people are using illicit drugs to self-medicate mental health issues. So the two issues are often strongly connected. This is too is often the case with many African Americans. We need a shift and consciousness and awareness around this issue and many other health issues.

  2. The Black community whispers about MI like its something dirty. When I announced on FB that I was taking the little white pills me mother asked me why I did that. So I told her I am not ashamed to have to take pills. I need some help getting off crazy train and everyone should know of they need help they can get it. No one should have to just suffer through things.

    • I agree, things are never going to change unless we actually break the veil of silence and talk about it. There is no shame in taking care of our emotional and mental selves.

  3. You are so “on target.” Far too many of us in the African-American community fail to recognize and acknowledge the importance of seeking professional help to deal with the stressors in our lives. Thank u so much for addressing this issue.

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