by Janna M Hall
“I didn’t want my children to come home from school and find my body like I found my mother’s. Slumped over old photos of me, holding an empty pill bottle. That’s why I got help.”
This quote, written by a depression survivor, kicks off a two-minute trailer to a documentary. As the trailer comes to a close, you’ll hear the voice of a young black man, recalling his own experiences.
“I tried to commit suicide, and I ended up getting committed into a place in Richmond. I was still underage at the time, so I got lucky; I definitely didn’t want any paperwork on me.”
The video, though clearly a preview to a much larger, in depth project, opens the viewer up to a myriad of stories from men and women who bravely discuss something considered taboo in many African American households: mental illness. Their voices echo through the speakers, almost as calls-to-action, encouraging viewers to do some soul-searching, identify trends, and confront potential mental illness in their own lives.
Although July is officially Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s imperative that the conversation about African Americans and our mental health persists beyond the month. The United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health has reported that Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than adult whites, but also that due to stigma, we’re also least likely to seek help. And according to the Center for Disease Control, black women are more likely to feel sadness and hopelessness than their white counterparts, at 3.9% vs. 3.3%. Black men, on the other hand, are more likely to feel sadness, hopelessness, and worthless, at 6.7% vs their counterparts’ 4.7%. But data is not destiny; the journey to mental stability and peeling back layers of emotional trauma is ongoing, and requires our constant attention, understanding, and pursuit of a solution. And while undoing generations of the “grin and bear it” approach to depression, substance abuse, and anxiety, to name a few, is not easy, it must be done in order to ensure a brighter future for Black Americans.
The aforementioned documentary, titled Outside the House, is the catalyst for a much needed conversation within the African American community, a conversation that needs to transcend the four walls that force us to deny the existence of the very thing that destroys us. Darnell Lamont Walker, Ph.D, a Charlottesville, VA native and the creator of the project, spent months speaking with men and women in Richmond, VA and beyond on this very topic, with the mission of creating a documentary that will burn down the house where we keep these secrets.
“There’s been this longstanding thing where we don’t share our problems, mental health status, or mental issues outside of the house,” Darnell explains. “I wanted to go into the communities and get people to share their stories and be really vulnerable. I’ve learned that once people are honest and willing to share their experiences, then others will be able to say ‘Hey, there are other people going through what I’m going through. I’m not alone.’”
Having welcomed vulnerability earlier on than many of his peers, Walker recalls far too many conversations where friends chose not to share experiences because they felt no one would understand. Through this documentary, he’s most excited to provide a place of refuge for African Americans who believe that they’re alone in their pain, struggle, and past trauma. And he knows first-hand why a project like this is so critical.
“Off the top of my head, I can think of five people who have committed suicide,” he explains. “And they were black. We always hear, ‘Oh black people don’t kill themselves; that’s not a black thing.’ But it’s happening! There was a 13-year-old kid who killed himself because he was going through issues that he didn’t feel comfortable talking to his parents about. So finally I said OK, this is getting out of hand. We need to start talking.”
There are two main reasons why we as a people don’t talk, Walker believes. For starters, there’s a known stigma around mental illness. By and large, when telling someone that you’re seeking help for an illness not visible to the naked eye, you’re often looked at as weak or troubled, and you’re certainly viewed through a different lens. He gives the example of the family member we all know has issues. “We talk about them when they’re not around, but never address it in a serious manner and we certainly don’t suggest they seek help. If they go and get diagnosed, then it becomes something else. It becomes ‘yeah, you really have issues,’ and no one wants to be looked at that way.”
The second reason why we don’t talk has a lot to do with the generations before us who have dealt with trauma and, in their eyes, have overcome it.
“When we bring up our issues and hint at mental illness, we have older generations that tell us to stick with it, that ‘it’s not that bad,’ and we need to be strong and get through it,” says Walker. “And we’ve been pushing our way through it for so long that we have older folks who are so depressed, but they tell the younger generations who want to get help, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright in a couple days.’”
And he believes that overly religious groups haven’t helped much, either. In the documentary, he speaks with a woman who was molested by a close family member at the age of 24. Struggling to “be strong and get through it,” she sought professional help despite her family’s years-long advice to pray, and then pray harder. As a result, her mother wouldn’t speak to her for months. Thankfully, though, many pastors are beginning to encourage their congregation to seek professional help in addition to prayer. Younger pastors in particular have mental health degrees themselves, so they’re able to identify when a person needs to speak to someone before their situation takes an even darker turn.
Walker is a firm believer in therapy for African Americans, and not just for handling trauma or coping with depression. He believes it’s necessary for the human condition.
“The first time I went and spoke to anybody about anything—and I’ve never considered myself someone with a mental illness or mental disorder—was when a friend asked me to come with her to an appointment with her therapist. We just sat there talking, but it helped in ways I would’ve never imagined. It helps to talk to someone who’s not emotionally invested in you and can help you make sense of questions like, ‘Why do I do certain things?’ I realized then that you don’t need to have a mental illness to talk to a therapist.”
The truth is, though, that African Americans have a special need for therapy, even when we can’t readily identify why. For generations, we’ve lacked the opportunity to be completely vulnerable and address our problems. From our ancestors in 1619 to men and women on the front lines of protests today, we’ve had to maintain a poker face in order to stand against adversity. Having to pretend that footage of police brutality doesn’t affect our psyche is doing more harm than good. So where does that leave us when it’s time to rear the next generation of Black men and women?
The Virginia Health Care Foundation offers dozens of resources that helps men and women of all ages cope with mental health issues on every level. On their website, www.vhcf.org, you’ll find guides and advice on how to cope with various mental health illnesses. Their East Main Street office also serves as an in-person resource for in-person counseling. In 2015, a record-breaking 39% of all patients seen for mental health treatment were uninsured, and the Virginia community health centers provided free mental health care for over 31,000 residents.
In Outside the House, Walker delves deeper into the lives of Black Americans and shows the importance of taking advantage of mental health resources available, and the monumental impact treatment and counseling can have on our lives.
“I wanted to have this documentary done in June, but there’s always more information to add and always a new story to tell,” Walker says. “I’m just asking the questions that’ll help us all figure out what the next steps should be. This documentary will open up the gate, but I can’t say what the final outcome will be. I don’t even want to have a final say; I just know that it’ll get a much-needed conversation started.”
To learn more about Darnell Walker’s documentary, Outside the House, visit www.OutsidetheHouseDoc.com.
Photos submitted by Dr. Darnell Walker.