Friday, July 22, 2011

"Crazy People Scare Me": Facing the Stigma in Communities of Color

Following in the footsteps of my buddy Chris Weise, here’s a slice of dialogue from a conversation my co-worker and I had this past May:

Me:  Hey Bobby, you should submit your headshot to Erasing the Distance.

BOBBY: What’s that?

ME: It’s an organization that sheds light on mental health issues through theatre. We tell the true stories of people living with mental illness.

BOBBY: Crazy people scare me.

ME (frustrated, forcing a smile): That’s why we’re doing this, Bobby!

As an advocate of mental illness awareness, a person who has a mental illness (I have ADHD…so bear with me as this blog entry may be ALL OVER THE PLACE), an actor and otherwise active member of Erasing the Distance, this exchange disappointed me. Okay…I’m being nice, I was MAD. First, I was upset that an educated man in his upper 40s would choose to respond to mental illness by saying something so dismissive. Second, I was frustrated that he would dismiss an awesome and fulfilling acting job based on a “fear of crazy people.” Third, I was mad that the comment came from an African American.

Wait, WHAT?

Let me break it down:

I too am African American, and Bobby’s response was an example of how many people of color view mental illness. So I can’t get too ticked off at him; he's only reflecting the huge stigma that African Americans have towards mental illness. Many African Americans as well as other groups of color feel that mental illness is something that “white people get” or “not a big deal” or even “something they can pray away.” It’s rarely openly discussed and if it is, it’s frowned upon or unsupported. Going to therapy is "a rich white people thing."  Talking about your mental health issues can be viewed as weakness or a lack of faith. As you may know, mental illness does NOT discriminate; it affects all backgrounds. Yet, we (people of color) continue to distance ourselves from it. We don’t talk about it, we don’t deal with it, and we want nothing to do with it.

I must be honest, I am not immune to this stigma. For example, I’ve seen therapists on and off for the past 10 years. The last two, I’ve gone much more frequently. However, I hadn’t freely shared with family and friends that I go to therapy until recently. In May, I was diagnosed with Adult ADHD. Getting tested and diagnosed with ADHD was huge for me; it was like solving a 29 year puzzle. Yet, I only discussed this with two of my African American friends and was hesitant to do so.

So why do I, and my other brothers and sisters of color, continue to embrace this stigma? Why does it remain so tall and wide, and at times suffocating? Where did it come from? What efforts are being taken to disarm this stigma? What is my role in changing this?

These are the questions that motivated me to embark on this written journey. In this series, I will explore these questions, seek answers, and hopefully find solutions. The first stop on this journey is a selection from Stories that Heal, a TV and Radio campaign designed to promote awareness and healing of mental illness in the African American community.  Lydia, a 25 year-old woman with anxiety and depression, discusses how mental illness is stigmatized in the African American church and how she overcame it to share her struggles with her immediate family and church family. To view the clip, click here

Please take a second to watch. Do you think this campaign is an effective tool in disarming stigma? Do you relate to anything she shared? I’d love to hear your input.

In the meantime, thanks for reading and happy thoughts!
Rhonda Marie :)

Rhonda Marie Bynum is a member of ETD's Ambassador Council as well as an ensemble member who has appeared onstage with ETD numerous times. Click here to read more posts from Rhonda Marie.

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