Agyei Ekundayo is a mental health expert that reached out to BGN months ago when we were prepping for our Mental Illness Podcast. Unfortunately, Agyei reached out to BGN after I booked our panel and didn’t have room for another guest, but I wanted to ensure that we got her feedback and commentary about this important subject. Ageyi gave an insightful interview about her personal experiences and also addressed the stigmas placed on people of color in the mental illness community.
Jamie: Why do you think there’s such a negative stigma towards mental health, especially with people of color? Things like depression obviously fall under this category but people are still afraid to speak out on their struggles.
Agyei: Mental illness have always been viewed as a crazy or deranged person’s problem. Media continues to portray people living with mental illnesses as psychotic, violent, or in some other way threatening. We are often thought of as less important or lost causes. To associate oneself with a mental illness is to admit an association with “craziness”, which is an embarrassment for most. Blacks in particular have never given mental illnesses much validity and often assume that mental illnesses and especially suicide, only affect white people.
Jamie: Do you know of any support groups, online or in person that people can turn to for mental health as a whole or specific illnesses (i.e. depression, bipolar, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.)
Agyei: Shame and confidentiality issues are huge barriers to accessing access mental health care. I always tell people to start small, by calling an anonymous hotline. Hotlines are free, almost always available 24/7, and now thanks to technology, can route calls to local support services based on the area code from where the call is placed.
800-273-TALK is the national Suicide Prevention Hotline. Online resources include everything from mental health information summaries, self-care tips, and self-assessments—although these should be used with caution—diagnosis explanation, types of therapies, etc. The best thing to do is to cross reference “expert” or “doctor recommended” information with verifiable sources and talk to a health care provider in your area. Arm yourself with as much information as possible and never feel afraid to ask questions.
Jamie: If you have family members that you suspect have a mental illness, but they refuse to seek help, is there anything you can do?
Agyei: Be careful in your approach. Tough love and reverse psychology do not, I repeat, do not work with people experiencing mental health problems. Listen without judgment, gently let them know your concerns, and take mental notes of behaviors that concern you. Wait until the person is calm or in a good mood before readdressing the situation. You can make phone calls to family support centers, hotlines, and support groups on their behalf and offer to accompany them to wherever they may need to go, but you cannot force anyone to do what they are not ready to do.
Jamie: What are your thoughts about “praying the illness away?”
Agyei: You cannot pray away mental illness. Let me be clear. I’m not saying that prayer doesn’t work or suggesting that a person stops practicing their religion. What I cannot stress enough is that mental illnesses are medical conditions that require medical treatment. It is more sensible to tell a person to seek medical care and include prayer as a part of their healthcare regime. Clergy men and women are not doctors and are not qualified to provide much needed psychiatric counseling. The spiritual counseling that is taught in your average pastoral or religious curriculum isn’t designed, nor sufficient to treat mental illness. Cancer patients aren’t told they don’t need doctors. Kidney disease sufferers aren’t told their blood will detox on its own and therefore, dialysis is unnecessary. No one instructs a diabetes sufferer to forgo their insulin, because blood sugar issues are all in their head and will go away on its own. Mental illnesses are real medical disorders, requiring multiple therapies. There are no quick fixes or one simple solution and they do not “go away” on their own. You simply cannot pray away mental illness.
Jamie: Are there any TV/Film examples of positive imagery of Black people with mental illness?
Agyei: The reality is that drama sells. In pop media, you will more than likely see the destructive side of mental illness, before a healthy, positive depiction of a person living successfully in spite of their diagnosis.
a.) NY Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall is a national spokesman for Borderline Personality Disorder and established a foundation in his name to spread awareness.
b.) Actress Lisa Nicole Carson is also on the speaking circuit openly discussing how bipolar disorder has impacted her life over the last 10 years and how she is overcoming her many challenges.
c.) Although Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder doesn’t just affect military personal, Jennifer Hudson did a good job portraying a war vet stricken with PTSD in Lifetime’s Call Me Crazy. It was her characters’ family’s love, not dismissal that helped medication and therapy easier to navigate.
d.) Halle Berry gave the performance of her career in Frankie & Alice. This true story details the horrors of and eventual triumph over Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. In it, Halle’s character felt hopeless until she allowed herself to believe that she could be helped. The beauty of that hope spoke volumes when she trusted a seasoned psychiatrist to invest a lengthy part of his career in teaching her how to restore her sanity.
Jamie: How can someone that has an undiagnosed mental illness/disorder approach their family/friends/circle with their feelings?
Agyei: The first thing I would tell them is to pat themselves on the back for even trying to seek help. Many people are uncomfortable about experiencing any kind of symptoms and would much rather keep their problems private. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Talk to someone you trust and let them know how you feel. There are no special code words to use or fancy speeches to blurt out first. Just speak plainly and ask someone to listen. Start there. Let someone know that there are some things on your mind that’s been bothering you and would really like to discuss. Be prepared for some resistance, especially children. There’s a very harmful myth that kids shouldn’t have problems because they aren’t adults or “don’t pay no bills around here”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone has problems. It is also very helpful to write down how you feel and why you feel this way. The messages don’t have to be anything fancy, just your own personal thoughts. If one person won’t listen, someone else will.
Jamie: If they receive ridicule or dismissal, how should they go about getting a proper diagnosis?
Agyei: Don’t get discouraged. You are not alone. Even in today’s digital information age, mental illness is still taboo and sorely misunderstood. Search online for counseling services that offer free consultations and those where you can self-refer. Psychiatry/psychology services are specialized, so compile a list of places you can go where a referral isn’t needed. This is only a start, but it gets you in the door. Ask a guidance counselor, family doctor, if you have one, social worker, etc. for names of counselors/counseling practices in your area that are low cost or may even offer free services, until you can establish permanent care. Healing is a process that doesn’t happen overnight or in one doctor’s visit. Therapy and meds come with a price tag, but the benefits are well worth it.
Agyei Ekundayo is author of Hindsight Is 20/20, a memoir. She is an impassioned mental health advocate who enjoys blogging, Youtube, and Skee Ball.
About Jamie Broadnax
Jamie Broadnax is the writer and creator of the niche blogsite for nerdy women of color called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC’s The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio’s Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. In her spare time, she enjoys live-tweeting, reading, writing, and spending time with her beagle Brandy.