On Wayne Brady, Mental Illness, and the African American Community
The following piece is from For Harriet. It was written by Tracy Hicks.
By: Tracy Hicks
Several weeks ago, the world learned that entertainer and game show host Wayne Brady suffers from clinical depression and had a serious “breakdown” this past summer. As a self-proclaimed social media maven, I read through various comments of support and understanding for Brady online. But I also came across many shocking replies from African-American women about depression. I cannot exactly explain the feelings of total disbelief that I felt as I read through the numerous responses of: “What has Wayne Brady have to be depressed about?” or “if I had Wayne Brady money, I wouldn’t be depressed.” Then, of course, there are those who believe he should just “snap out of it.” I paused for a second and wondered why in 2014 is it that the African-American community is in perpetual denial about clinical depression and the reality of living with it.
I have written about clinical depression and mental illness disorders previously, and what frightens me is the obvious lack of understanding that we as African-Americans have on the subject. Mental illness in the African American community is one of those dark, closeted, subjects that only gets dragged out into the light when a loved one or celebrity commits suicide. A few years ago, the body of a popular African American author and columnist was discovered hanging in her New York apartment: She had committed suicide. Everyone that knew this writer personally tried to gloss over the death. Yes, people were afraid to be honest about the fact that the writer had suffered from bipolar disorder, and had been on a downward spiral that eventually led to her suicide. When I acknowledged publicly that she was a victim of mental illness, some were upset with me. “Mental illness is a private matter,” I was told. I emphatically stand by my initial response today, “No, it is not.” Mental illness is not a dirty secret to be swept under the rug because certain people are uncomfortable with discussing it.
Why are we, in the African American community, “uncomfortable” with the discussion of mental illness disorders? Perhaps it is the stigma that comes from being outside the norm. Perhaps it is our roots in Western Christian-Judeo society that conditioned us to believe that people who suffer from mental illness disorders are somehow ‘demonic,’ ‘unclean,’ unholy,’ or ‘possessed.’ We buy into the false ideology that mental illness is acquired, and can therefore be exorcised. This could not be further from the truth! Mental illness disorders and diseases are a condition of the brain. Researchers are now able to define and view the areas of the brain that physiologically affected by neurological diseases and mental illness disorders, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer, dementia, and schizophrenia. From these scans, it is evident that mental illnesses are very real. One cannot ‘snap out’ of mental illness or pray it away. However, mental illness disorders can be treated effectively through therapy, medication, and support.
Mental Health America concluded in a study that 63% of African Americans “believed that depression is a personal weakness” and only 31% “believed that depression is a health problem.” Interesting. Perhaps that explains the apathetic and accusatory responses of some in the African American community to Wayne Brady’s confession of being a sufferer of clinical depression. A lot of us still want and need to believe that it must be something wrong with Brady’s countenance that caused the depression. It is painful to know that in 2014, we as African Americans, refuse to embrace those in our community who suffer from mental illness disorders, or even acknowledge that we may be affected. This same study revealed the depression rate among African American women is 50% higher than our Caucasian counterpart. Why? Psychologists suggest that the historical circumstances of slavery, unfavorable socioeconomic conditions, and the overwhelming stress that African American women face accounts for the startling statistics. Yet, because African American women as a whole are less likely to have adequate health care and under or simply do not report their symptoms of depression to a health professional, millions suffer in silence.
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