A few weeks ago, more than two dozen students, mostly Black, were involved in a violent brawl at a local college hangout near the campus where I teach. In this digital age and 24/7 media cycle, the news spread like wildfire throughout town in a matter of hours. Moreover, pictures of the melee were allegedly posted on YouTube for anyone to witness. Several students were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and other related charges. The fact that students were arrested for such violent behavior is not surprising and, quite frankly, expected. But what was more notable was when it came to light that several of the students involved in the violent confrontation suffered from mental illness.
Upon hearing this information, I began to think of recent and similar incidents that made national headlines like the 16 September Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shooting committed by civilian contractor Aaron Alexis; the gripping saga of Miriam Carey, a Stamford, Conn., single mother, who was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis and believed President Obama was electronically monitoring her; and the horrific suicide of John Constantino who doused gasoline over his body, lit a match and killed himself. In each of these cases, the individual was Black.
What came out of these tragic misfortunes was the beginning of a dialogue on a topic that has been far too long ignored in the Black community—mental illness. Though some Black health experts have long been warning the public about the mental health crisis that afflicts a number of Black Americans, too many people have dismissed the disease, asserting that Blacks are, historically, a strong race of people that can withstand any sort of adversity (which has been largely true) and, therefore, are largely immune from mental illness. Instead, many have dismissed mental illness, proclaiming that it is a dilemma that primarily affects only Whites and a few other non-White groups. Such a belief is dangerously misguided.
In fact, according to the American Association of Suicide Study, suicide is ranked as the third leading cause of death for young Blacks between 15 and 24 years of age. The study also confirmed that Black men are five times more likely to commit suicide than Black women. The shocking suicides of legendary Soul Train host Don Cornelius and superstar linebacker Junior Seau in 2012 were two examples of two seemingly successful, super achieving Black men who seemed to have it all, yet were internally empty and depressed. Their deaths sent shock waves throughout the Black community.
While various stigmas have long been associated with mental illness among people of all races and ethnicities, much of the Black community has largely been in denial. The specific reasons why we tend to be more reluctant in seeking out treatment than other groups vary. For some Blacks, in their mind, admitting and confronting the fact the he or she suffers from mental illness make them appear vulnerable. There is also the perception that other people may think of them as being “crazy” or “unhinged.” For others, religious beliefs can come into play. There are Black people who feel that prayer is the only form of counseling and medication required to take care of whatever trials and tribulations they are going through. Moreover, the belief that a person should not be putting their personal business out into the world for others to witness by some Blacks also prevents people from seeking the treatment they need.
Truth be told, it’s not too surprising that certain Black Americans suffer from mental health issues given the disproportionate number of Blacks who suffer from racism, poverty, prejudice, personal slights and other forms of individual and systematic discrimination. In some cases, even for those who may be aware of their situation, financial limitations and other factors can be a barrier to seeking treatment. Overtime, an untreated diagnosis can likely cause mental and physical deterioration of a person’s health. The cold, hard truth is that mental illness is a disease that can be a potentially debilitating enemy to all those afflicted with it and should be diagnosed and dealt with aggressively.
Dr. Elwood Watson
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several books and articles. His latest work Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture published by Indiana University Press.