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.



Because your mental health is important too

As 2010 draws to a close I find myself in a rather introspective state, there has been a lot of meditation and reading and plain old trying to figure out my place in this world and in my life. This year has brought a lot of changes for me personally, seeing my eldest child turn 18 and head off to college has most certainly been one of the bigger milestones. Since the laws state that at 18 a person is an adult I have been grappling with redefining my relationship to him and what that means. I am always going to be Momma and he is always going to be my baby yet I know he needs space to find his place in the world.

This year has also seen me take a more active role in the life of my own Dad who is my remaining parental unit and who we will be presumably welcoming into our daily life in a matter of days. I have also seen the organization that I run grow by leaps and bounds, our annual budget has doubled yet we are still a small grass roots organization and it means that even though I have a fancy sounding title, I still deal with much of the minutia.

My marriage this year has experienced some shifts, mostly good but at times painful as we both seek to find ourselves in middle age and adjust our new selves to the larger union of our family. Then there is my body, I am at the age my mother was when she started a cycle of regular doctor visits and an ever growing arsenal of pills to manage conditions. Thankfully the shifts in my body have not necessitated medical interventions but I am officially at a point where the body I reside in has informed me that it is no longer the body of a young woman.

Needless to say in juggling a year of change it is easy to overlook one’s mental state yet coming from a line of women who never paid attention to their mental state and in my opinion reaped the disastrous effects of that decision in their body, I seek to break with that tradition. Yet I was reading this piece that once again reminded me as a Black woman, I am not alone in when it comes to how I treat my mental health.

Let me be clear, all women regardless of race or ethnicity carry heavy burdens; it’s the legacy of a patriarchal society. But for women of color specifically for Black women frankly most of us are just not used to addressing our mental health, I think about how many years ago I sought therapy to learn how to deal with my family…yes, I did. I love em but they were driving me crazy. However at that time in my life I was ashamed that I was in therapy because as a Black woman I felt I should have been strong enough to deal with these issues on my own. Though over the years I have noticed with my white friends they have no problem admitting they are in therapy and or using medications to address depression, anxiety, etc.

So much of what holds Black women back from addressing mental health is frankly half baked stereotypes that only “crazy” folks need that stuff and frankly it’s killing us. This year I saw many of my Black peers lose parents but what is crazy that for friends in their 30’s or early 40’s they are losing their parents at ridiculously young ages like 57, 58 or maybe 60. Of course I lost my Mom when she barely 50, so I know all too well how hard this life is on us as a people yet the idea of checking out early scares me so I strive to take care of myself despite the fact that it’s hard.

Sistas, just as we take care of our hair, the kids, our man, and others…we have got to start taking care of ourselves. It’s really that simple. You and I both know it’s not normal to walk around with a continuous pit in our stomachs, headaches, panic attacks…yet we do. Why? In many cases fear. I admit there is a shortage of culturally aware clinicians to work with us, fact is in addressing our issues culture is an issue. I know I have had many white friends tell me that perhaps my family of origin is toxic and I need to cut em off. They probably are toxic but they are the only family I got so I need to learn to live my life and deal with them but at the same time preserve my mental health. I was lucky that when I was in therapy I found a therapist that got it, she understood the dynamics of Black families and knew that cutting them off was not going to work instead giving me tools to work with them and allowing me to preserve my sanity.

So as we bring 2010 to a close I invite you to join me in my quest to take my mental health as seriously as I take my physical health.

Lean on me

Last night I suffered another bout of insomnia which is happening more and more often this past year. Truthfully since the birth of the little one three years ago, I can count on one hand the number of nights I slept longer than six hours. Parenthood coupled with getting older seem to be working against me sleeping a full night….

However last night’s bout of insomnia was brought on by a conversation  I had with a dear friend who I was catching up with, part of me hesitates to write this because I’m not trying to put my girl’s business out there but I feel there is a larger piece here that needs to be shared.

My girl and I go back, way back, I’m talking we have known each other since we were like 10, this sista has always been the light and life of the party. When we was young hot things, I was always the wing-man, a role that suits me well in many way. Yet my girl was always on, shit I wanted her energy.

Anyway in the first hour of what was probably a three hour conversation, we were just catching up, doing our thing though I sensed there was something beneath the surface. True enough there was, midway through the conversation she confessed that the reason she had dropped off my radar was because she was going through some shit. Turns out she had been feeling a tad down, which then got us to talking about Black folks and mental health.

My girl’s issues are not the point here but this conversation reminded me that as Black folks, we have a tendency to not address mental health issues to the same extent our white counterparts do and truthfully that shit is killing us. I know because I have been there.

It was about nine years ago that the pressures of life had me on edge, I felt pulled in all directions, my primary care doctor put me on Wellbutrin, it helped but I sensed I need more, so I took the plunge. I went to see a therapist. This was a huge step for me, mind you at the time I was working with the homeless, many who suffered mental health issues, shit I often got them into therapy but at the time I felt shame about needing to see someone myself. In fact when I was in therapy I only told 2 people, the spousal unit and one close friends, I felt shame that I needed to see someone but at the same time, therapy gave me the tools to deal with stress.

However despite the sucess of therapy at that time, the reality is I still grapple with anxiety. I have a phobia, I cannot drive, driving gets me so riled up that while technically I can drive, truth is I avoid it at all costs. I have not driven in a long time, though this year I am actively seeking to work through this phobia because honestly its become problematic. I almost thought about not sharing this tidbit about myself, but I am at the point that rather than make excuses, I feel like I need to come out of the closet about it as I actively work through my anxiety.

That said, I find that in many Black families we all have relatives with issues but rather than call them what they are; which is mental health issues, we dance around the issues which I believe is killing us.

Instead as we stand on the cusp of history being made tomorrow, I think we need to take the time to do some self exploration and work to change ourselves. Are you eating too much? Drinking? Shopping? Maybe you engage in these behaviors because its easier that dealing with yourself….I know when I was young, I went through a year where I engaged in self destructive behaviors but didn’t know why….I know now that I was depressed.

There is no crime or shame in being depressed, in fact rather than hiding it, I feel we need to be open about it, tell someone, don’t be afraid to lean on family and friends. If they are real, they will be there for you. True change starts when we look at ourselves and then work outward.