By Joshunda Sanders
From Metta World Peace to Rudy Eugene, African-Americans confronting mental health challenges are often portrayed as isolated examples of crazy or deranged people rather than members of a marginalized community suffering an illness.
July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, established in 2008 in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell, an acclaimed author and mental health advocate. But beyond the black blogosphere and social networking events, the dismal state of black mental health treatment and awareness hasn’t been covered by mainstream print, online and broadcast media.
Before she died at age 56 in 2006, Campbell was an advocate for mental health awareness through organizing and her writing. Her children’s novel, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,“ was given the 2003 Outstanding Media Award for Literature by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It is about a girl who learns how to cope with her mother’s bipolar disorder.
In 2005, Campbell wrote “72 Hour Hold,” a novel focusing on an adult daughter, the onset of mental illness and challenges faced by mentally ill African-Americans in America’s health care system. The book is believed to have been inspired by the experience of her daughter, actress Maia Campbell, with mental illness.
Journalists, writers and experts cite many reasons why the mainstream media don’t cover African-American mental health responsibly or consistently. Among them are racism, lack of context about how African-Americans interact with the health care system and stigmas that remain entrenched in the black community and discourage those who struggle with depression, schizophrenia or other mental health problems from discussing them.
“Mental health in general has been a sub-beat in the mainstream media,” says journalist Amy Alexander, co-author with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint of the 2001 book, “Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans.” Rarely do mainstream media outlets have the luxury of assigning a reporter to cover only mental health since most are now responsible for several beats simultaneously.
A prominent exception was Clifford J. Levy, now a New York Times editor. He won the + for investigative reporting, and a George Polk Award, for a three-part series exposing sometimes fatal neglect of the mentally ill in privately run adult homes regulated by New York State.
Alexander says, “It used to be that no one would write about mental health, and the way it would be covered would be piecemeal in the context of a report coming out from the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] or the National Institutes of Health. Or you would see a story pop up around a horrific event.”
Since Alexander’s and Poussaint’s book was published, little has changed. The bizarre case of Rudy Eugene, 31, an African-American in Miami who chewed off a homeless man’s face in May before being shot to death, made “bath salts” a buzz phrase nationwide.
Eugene took his clothes off along the MacArthur Causeway from Miami Beach before attacking Ronald Poppo, 65, in what The Miami Herald called a “ghoulish, drawn-out assault in plain view on a city sidewalk captured by a Miami Herald security camera. Eugene was shot by a police officer who found him chewing chunks off Poppo’s face.”
The head of the Miami police union publicly speculated that “bath salts,” synthetic stimulants believed to be the cause of psychotic episodes elsewhere around the country, prompted Eugene’s actions. But, according to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office, only marijuana was found in his system.
More likely, Kristen Gwynne wrote for the online magazine AlterNet, is that Eugene had a history of mental illness. “But pinning a tragedy to a drug scare is easier (and perhaps more lucrative) than explaining a non-existent safety net for the mentally ill,” she wrote. “Bath salts, the mainstream media naively believes, can be banned and eradicated. Treating mental illness is a far more complicated story.”
Other than sensationalized portraits of individuals, the only consistent coverage of mental illness in the black community focuses on the psychological fallout of depression and other mental health issues facing black celebrities.
These portrayals are opportunities for mainstream media to explore larger questions about the escalating suicide rate among black men, the entrenched stigma of appearing weak and vulnerable in the black community by seeking help and the dearth of African-American mental health professionals. Instead, stories focus on the unique narrative surrounding individual celebrities and not mental health problems of a broader community.
When “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in February at age 75, far more media attention was given to his legacy than his mental state. Instead, his stoicism was noted in a New York Times obituary. During divorce proceedings in 2009, James C. McKinley Jr. wrote, Cornelius “mentioned having ‘significant health problems’ but did not elaborate.” Another friend of Cornelius’s simply described him as being “very private.”
When World Peace, a Los Angeles Lakers player formerly known as Ron Artest, has spoken honestly and publicly about his therapy for mental health issues, reporters have mocked him. In September 2010, a year before Artest changed his name, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke referred to him as “the looniest Laker” even as Artest was addressing middle schoolers, urging them to communicate to health care professionals what ails them psychologically.
Journalist and author Ellis Cose says these examples explore “celebrities much more so than the black community.”In 1994, Cose wrote “The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?” and last year, “The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage.”
Neither the Cornelius obituary nor Plaschke’s column, for the most part, was linked explicitly to race. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, did suggest that Cornelius’s death might launch a conversation about suicide prevention among blacks. “But his take was the exception rather than the rule,” Cose wrote in an e-mail.
Even when the topic is more about black celebrity than race, mental illness, particularly in famous athletes, is viewed as “evidence of a criminal character,” says David J. Leonard, author of “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness.” He is an associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University.
“Media go immediately to focusing on the purported pathologies of the players themselves and don’t want to see what the broader context is,” Leonard says. “The history of race and mental health is a history of racism and the white medical establishment demonizing and criminalizing the black community through writing about their ‘abnormal personalities’ and being ‘crazy.’
“That history plays out in mainstream media coverage, but it also affects public discussions about mental health because it has so often been used to justify exclusion, segregation and inequality” in mental health treatment for African-Americans.
Online alternative media and black-oriented websites such as The Root, theGrio and independent blogs have reported more consistently and thoroughly on mentally ill African-Americans.
Danielle Belton, who blogs at blacksnob.com, has written for bp Magazine (bphope.com) about her perspective as someone with bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, according to webmd.com. Recently, Bassey Ikpi, a writer and blogger working on a book about her bipolar disorder diagnosis in 2004, founded The Siwe Project, a global nonprofit, as a forum for African-Americans to share experiences about mental health in the black community.
To encourage dialogue about a topic rarely discussed publicly, Ikpi created No Shame Day on July 2. On social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, African-Americans worldwide shared stories of navigating mental health in a culture that actively discourages blacks from seeking talk therapy, she says.
“We didn’t get any mainstream media coverage for No Shame Day,” Ikpi says. “There were 80,000 mentions of No Shame Day and The Siwe Project within a six- to eight-hour period on July 2. No Essence, Ebony or Huffington Post. I think it’s changing a little bit, but mainstream media is not moving with the same speed as online publications.”
At least partial resistance to mainstream reporting on black mental health is tied to blacks’ historical stoicism and belief that religion can serve as a substitute for professional therapy or, when necessary, medication.
“We have survived Jim Crow, beating, lynchings and fire hoses,” says Mychal Denzel Smith, a mental health advocate, commentator and writer. “We pride ourselves on strength. I spoke at a high school, and the teacher said, ‘Black folks just don’t have time to be depressed.’
“Of all the things that we’re up against, mental health seems to be last on the list, but if you look at the totality of our experience in America, it can lead to mental illness. But it seems like the last thing you would need to address among all of the ills that plague our community.”
No Shame Day and The Siwe Project are important starting points for continuing a conversation outside mainstream media about the importance of self-care, Smith says.
“What Bassey did with No Shame Day was very proactive activism . . . it’s something she’s been planning for some time. It’s about taking control and being proactive in defining our narrative for us instead of waiting for other people to do it.
“That’s the thing about mental health that we have to know – not waiting for someone to diagnose us. We know that there’s something wrong in our community. There’s something wrong with that uncle that’s always drunk or the aunt that’s on drugs. We have to be more proactive in addressing these issues and making sure that we take our health into account.”
Joshunda Sanders writes media critiques for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Her stories and other media critiques are available atwww.mije.org/mmcsi and can be republished free of charge. For more information, please contact Elisabeth Pinio at [email protected] or 510-891-9202.