Friday, September 10, 2010

So What If I'm Crazy? by Ruth C. White

At the risk of appearing to poke my nose in other folks' family business, I'm going to post here today a short piece by Ruth C. White, an African-American social worker and professor who has something to say to the Black community that I have thought for years needed to be said. With all the stereotypes African-Americans have to confront on a daily basis, no matter how "well-adjusted" they appear to be, I can only imagine what the fear of outing oneself as having a mental illness on top of everything else must be like. Additionally, White Supremacy encourages African-Americans to see as "crazy" what are, in fact, reasonable concerns about and responses to institutionalized oppression. So it must be very hard to figure out just what is what. Nevertheless, my experience has been that what I won't face WILL smack me in the back of the head at some point. With that in mind, I present:

So What If I'm Crazy?

by Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW

I am a strong African American woman: The kind that aced two challenging concurrent grad school programs while pregnant, spent years of duty as a single, professional mother thousands of miles from family, backpacked alone through Central America in my 40’s, soloed up 6000+ft mountains, worked as a social worker with challenging populations in Canada, the USA and the UK, rode the rapids of the White Nile in a tiny kayak and on a big rubber raft, got tenure, and started a highly successful maternal and child health project in Africa. I’ve earned a cape and a big ‘S’ on my chest.

I am an African American woman with a brain disorder – aka mental illness (specifically manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder). I have spent time in a mental health treatment facility, will probably need medication for a lifetime, and have spent many hours in a therapist’s office. I’ve got a whole professional team that works with me to keep me sane.

I used to be ashamed and secretive of the reality described in the previous paragraph but proud of the life described in the first. Now it’s an integrated whole. I know that taking off the cape and stripping my chest of the ‘S’ doesn’t make me any less of a strong African American woman. Superhero status is not required. I cannot save the world and sometimes I’m the one that needs saving.

Like many people I once felt that having a mental illness was a sign of personal weakness. As a mental health professional I spent lots of time convincing people otherwise, but when it was my turn I felt that going to the psychiatrist was a sign of failure. I tried running, acupuncture, yoga, Chinese herbs, meditation – anything but get ‘mainstream’ medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist because,“ Nothing is wrong with me. I’m not crazy!”.

I had no issue with going to the dentist, gynecologist, or orthopedist. Like many African Americans I stigmatized mental illness in a way we do not stigmatize obesity, diabetes, hypertension and so many other chronic and life-threatening illnesses. We will take pills to lose weight or lower our blood pressure but not to get or stay mentally well.

According to the mythology that surrounds the strength of African Americans, ‘falling apart’ is just not something we do. We survived the Middle Passage, slavery, racial oppression and economic deprivation. We know how to “handle our business”, “be a man”, or “be a woman”. We see therapy as the domain of ‘weak’, neurotic people who don’t know what ‘real problems’ are. Instead, to deal with our psychic pain we eat our way into life-threatening obesity, excessively use alcohol and drugs, and act-out violently through word and deed, but we do not go crazy.

Because being ‘crazy’ means you can’t handle life and in our story of who we are, we are survivors who can handle anything,; which means we do what we have to do to survive. But this does not usually include a trip to the mental health professional of our choice. It is time to add this to our survival toolkit.

Is it really better to be a drug addict, obese with high blood pressure and diabetes, or be verbally/physically/emotionally violent to those around us, instead of seeking help for that which troubles us so deeply that we choose to self-destruct - though perhaps not in the stereotypical idea of what suicide looks like to us? I don’t think so.

At some point we must stop worrying what other people are going to think and get about the business of getting well and moving forward with our lives.

So how do African Americans begin to eliminate the stigma of mental illness so that we can get the help we need sooner rather than later, and support those who need it?

1. Talk about it. Don’t whisper or gossip about it. Talk about it at the BBQ. From the pulpit. On TV. On the radio. With our doctors. With our loved ones. If we can talk about our ‘sugar’ and our ‘pressure’, then we should be willing to talk about our depression.

2. Support each other in getting help. We send friends to the doctor for the nagging back pain so send them to get relief from their mental and emotional pain too. And don’t forget to ask them how they are doing as time passes; they need friends more than you know.

3. Let us not stigmatize the brain. It is attached to the body so mental illness IS a physical illness, especially as chemical imbalances are at the root of their expression. Furthermore, the biochemical impacts of a brain disorder are felt throughout the whole body, not just in the brain.

4. Say, “This person HAS a mental illness”, NOT “This person IS mentally ill”. We do not say, “That person IS cancerous”. Words have power.

5. Acknowledge that those who survive a brain disorder are as much survivors as family and friends who survive life-threatening diseases. Understand that we work just as hard to stay sane as the addict does to stay sober. As cancer or addiction go into remission so too do brain disorders.

6. Support people who share their stories of brain disorders. It is time to show that the faces and lives of African Americans with a mental illness are not just the faces and lives of the homeless person talking to the unseen. It is my face and my life; and the faces and lives of so many other men and women like me.

7. Advocate for accessible and affordable, culturally appropriate mental health services.

“Coming out” requires courage. Like any other consciousness-raising process, a range of role models that represent a variety of experiences with mental illness will change perceptions. As a community we have lists of accomplished African Americans to inspire us in our various endeavors. We need a list of African Americans with mental illness who have survived and thrived.

No doubt due to the stigma, it was difficult to find names of well-known African Americans with a “‘confirmed“‘ history of mental illness – and this is no place for innuendo or rumor-mongering. So I will start this list with me: My name is Ruth White and I have manic depression. I am a mother, poet, researcher, writer, kayaker, hiker, traveler, professor, swimmer, and as sane and happy a person as you would ever want to meet. My brain disorder does not define who I am.
NOTE: Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW is associate professor of social work at Seattle University in Seattle, WA and the co-author of Bipolar 101: A practical guide to identifying triggers, managing medications, coping with symptoms and more (New Harbinger Publications, 2009) Her blog on how to live successfully with mental illness can be found at Bipolar 101.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Damian Jenkins, R.I.P.

A week ago Thursday a little after noon, an eighteen-year-old African-American boy climbed up the football stadium bleachers and over a chain link fence at Franklinton High School here in Louisiana and jumped thirty-five feet to his death. He was always dressed to a t. The starting center on the varsity basketball team. A jokester. The class clown, some said. And described by one of my students (who had classes with him last year before she graduated and came to college) as "just SO nice to everybody all the time." And now Damian Demario Jenkins is dead.

I got an email about it the morning after the event occurred. Questions were being asked. The word was out that Damian had wound up in the Vice Principal's office for cutting in the lunch line. What happened there is, of course, a matter of conjecture. But folks are saying that the Vice Principal told Damian he would never amount to anything, that he was always going to be a nobody. The way it's told, Damian responded, "Well, if that's the way you feel, I might as well just go out and kill myself." And moments later, he did just that, over the objections of a friend who tried to stop him.

Needless to say, the family wants an investigation. They want to know if the school administrator made such a statement. And I don't blame them. Though I've also heard that Damian had problems at home, as well. And if that's true, he might have been especially vulnerable to an authority figure's verbal attack.

Still, the Vice Principal is White. Damian was Black. And Franklinton has had a running dialogue on an internet forum for the last two years under the title, "How racist is the town of Franklinton?" Why am I not surprised?

In any case, the latest addition to the story is that, at a memorial service at the school, a woman who also lost her son called out to him, saying, "If Damian is okay and with you, send a rainbow." And the result is all over the internet. Which makes for a lovely ending. I guess.

Except that, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third largest cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 24 and the rate has doubled since 1980. Why is that, I wonder? I write much on this blog that paints a very dark picture of the life chances for people of color under the default position of White Supremacy in the U.S. I actually had a Black student write me a note last semester, saying "Lighten up on us. Most Black students know how bad it is out there."

But do most Black students know it's bad out there NOT because they're a "nobody," but because that's the okey-doke, that's the way it's been set up to keep them "in their place"? I've been thinking a lot about this lately because I'm priming up to do an event on our campus in a couple of weeks on retention of minority (read: Black) students. From what I've been told, overall, six out of ten of our Black students never graduate from our institution and only two of ten Black males finish their degrees before leaving.

The fact is, I would argue, that they don't quit school or choose to die because someone else is going to make it hard for them. They quit school or choose to die because they suspect deep in their souls -- in the face of all contrary evidence -- that they really are lacking the most basic kind of worth. They're bombarded from birth, every time they come into contact in any way with the White world that surrounds them on all sides, with the idea that they somehow missed the boat by being born Black. That they are less than. That no matter how hard they try, they do not deserve to succeed because they don't have what it takes. That they are hopeless.

Psychologists call it "stereotype threat," the fear that you will be judged and found wanting because you're perceived to fit the steretypes you've always heard others apply to your ethnic group. This is quintessentially tidy for those with the power to define and their attendant academic lackeys who always seem to find ways to make institutionalized oppression the problem -- and the responsibility -- of the oppressed. It's not that the White Power Structure WANTS him to see himself as incapable, you understand, it's that he erroneously sees himself this way. So you explain to him that the exam is fair or that he can really get the job and he'll do fine. Or not.

On the other hand, I see the problem as the result of infecting Black children (and most especially Black boys) at a very young age with the virus of internalized racism, a vision of oneself as so flawed -- because of the skin tone with which you were born -- that no amount of effort or talent or style or intelligence can ever make it right. The only hope, then, is in telling them the truth: that the locus of the problem is not deep in their souls, but deep in the psyche of those with the power to define White as human and all else, at bottom, an unfortunate failure to be...well...White.

It is a brutal vaccination. But when they get it and it really sinks in, their heads raise, the terrible sorrow leaves their eyes, and a joy I would do anything to see creeps up into their faces. Soon, of course, they find their rage and that is a delicate moment. But they finish school and they don't self-destruct and I, for one, think we have no other choice.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Narrative About A Narrative

Time is an interesting thing. First of all, of course, it's one more of those social constructions. I mean, it didn't exactly come as part of the life-on-Earth starter kit. There was most certainly, I would imagine, a period early on when humans just lived in the moment. Indigenous people living traditionally still do, from what I understand. But as for us, we wear watches and calibrate gestation and are interminable consumers of calendars which all become obsolete annually. We wear time like spandex, allowing it to constrain us and demand of us lest it leave us, somehow, inexplicably, behind.

The fact is, though, that frustrating as all this often is, it is quite interesting sometimes to consider our and other people's lives in the temporal context, juxtaposing them to see where they meet or influence each other. For example, in 1970, when Angela Davis was arrested in New York City, I was in San Francisco, stretching my wings as a radical and absolutely unaware of her. How could I have been unaware of her?

In any case (unbeknownst to me), she was on the cover of Life magazine that summer and now, a copy of that cover hangs on my home office wall between a photo of the Angola 3 and a painting of a woman Zapatista. She's one of my heroes. And today, I'm reviewing her presentation of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself, brought out this year -- forty years after her arrest -- by City Lights, the highly respected San Francisco publishing house. It's a veritable kaleidoscope of magical coincidences, is it not? But I'm not finished yet.

See, this exact date in 1838 was the day Frederick Douglass broke through to freedom, escaping his bonds on his second try, at the age of twenty or so (he couldn't know for certain). Asked what it felt like to be free that day, Douglass wrote to a friend, "I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil."

And so, I approach this task -- a simple review of the book -- with just such a lack of confidence that I can possibly communicate what I think of a book with so many reference points for me.